Two groups are sparring over timelines for addressing contamination in the city’s aging neighborhoods.
By Afi Scruggs
Angela Williams lives with her daughter and grandchildren in a hundred-year-old house in Cleveland. When she bought the house, in 1994, she suspected it was contaminated with lead. It had been built in 1916, well before lead paint was banned. “I had lead [water] piping in this house,” she told me recently. “I was sure, definitely, there was some lead in the property.” And she’d seen mold when her bathroom was renovated, so she had reason to believe the house had environmental issues.
Cleveland is filled with lead-poisoned homes. County records show the median year for city housing stock is 1920, meaning the average home in the city was built decades before lead paint was finally outlawed in 1978. And there’s no doubt the city’s children are in danger. In 2015, the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s “Toxic Neglect” series found at least ten thousand children had been poisoned between 2010 and 2015, and that more than three thousand cases of lead poisoning, dating back twelve years, had been ignored or sloppily investigated.
In 2015, thanks to a program funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Williams was able to get her home tested and address some of the issues. She met the income guidelines when she was laid off from her job. She also qualified because her grandchildren visited her frequently. But she told me the cleanup was tedious and costly. All the doors had to be reframed. There was lead in the paint on the porch and the exterior. There was lead in the old-fashioned closet door with the glass in the door, she said. “They found a lot of lead in the closet door jambs, and in an old hallway. All that stuff had the original paint. I don’t think about stuff like that. I never thought they’d find that there,” she said. Even “the crystal door handles had lead.”
Williams’s case stands out from many in Cleveland: she knew about the issues, had ownership of the property, and was able to get the resources to address some of them. But, in general, efforts to fix the problems in the city have been piecemeal. Now, the latest attempt at a solution is mired in legal and political tug-of-war between the city’s establishment and its grassroots activists.
Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing gathered more than ten thousand signatures toward putting its proposal on the November ballot.
The current timeline for lead cleanup was drafted by Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition, comprised of nineteen representatives from among the city’s most influential political, civic and philanthropic leadership. Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition is looking to replicate the success of Rochester, NY, which reportedly reduced the percentage of lead-poisoned children by ninety percent. Rochester adopted a preventative strategy, requiring all property built before 1978 be regularly tested for lead. Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition is considering the same approach as it formulates recommendations for Cleveland City Council to consider. The coalition plans to submit those recommendations by May 1, calling for a lead-abated Cleveland by 2028.
Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing, or CLASH, thinks that’s too far away, and the organization is heading to court to force the issue. It wants the city council to move on the law requiring landlords to test for lead in homes built before 1978, and to remedy any poisoned homes or be fined—just like Lead Safe Cleveland. (Neither requires homes to be entirely lead free, focusing instead on awareness and management.) But CLASH wants it to happen by 2021.
CLASH gathered more than ten thousand signatures toward putting its proposal on the November ballot. More than six thousand signatures represented registered voters—more than the five thousand required for a ballot initiative. City council clerk Pat Britt threw out the petitions because CLASH omitted a sentence required by state law. CLASH admits the error, but claims the clerk still acted outside her authority. The group wants the courts to order Britt to pass the ordinance to council members to review and vote on.
Council member Blaine Griffin, who heads the council’s health committee and is a spokesperson for the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition, maintains the groups aren’t competitors. “I’ve met with [CLASH]. I’ve invited them to be a part of this coalition. They’re presented to our policy committee meeting,” he said in late March, when CLASH was still gathering signatures. “I think CLASH is moving forward on getting signatures in the event the city doesn’t move forward (with legislation),” he continued. “To be quite honest, I don’t have an issue with that.”
That’s exactly what CLASH had planned, says the group’s attorney Rebecca Maurer (who has previously written for this magazine). She notes the city has passed up numerous opportunities to take a tough stance against lead-contaminated housing. In 2017, as an attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, Maurer helped draft an ordinance that was very similar to the one in place in Rochester. But the Cleveland bill died in council. “It never got a hearing,” she said in March. “We’re going to the ballot as a last-ditch effort because of lack of progress at City Hall.”
Warnings about lead-contaminated housing in Cleveland date to the 1960s. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made it a tenants’ rights issue when he launched his Cleveland civil rights campaign in 1967. At a neighborhood hearing that year, a woman named Mattie Calloway described how her landlord refused to clean the apartment in which her children were poisoned by lead: “I had to buy the paint to paint the place so the baby could come home,” she reportedly said.
Maurer said that, for a long time, peeling walls and windows were simply considered a fact of life in Cleveland. “It was just accepted that this was the price of living in an older, Midwestern city,” she said. “You had people say things like: ‘I grew up and ate chipped paint, and look at me. I’m fine.’ Or, ‘We never used to worry about this type of thing.’ “
But Cleveland paid for its nonchalance. In 2017, the Cuyahoga County Board of Health found thirteen percent of children under the age of six living in the city had dangerous levels of lead in their bloodstreams, at least five micrograms per deciliter of blood. Countywide, eight percent of children are poisoned; across the state, two percent are poisoned. “We know that, every day, four kids are testing positive for lead poisoning about the CDC’s recommended levels. So every day that we wait is four more kids,” Maurer said.
Like many big cities, Cleveland’s Achilles heel is its aging housing stock, which is the oldest in the county. Records show the median year for city housing is 1920; the median year for suburban housing is 1955.
If a residence was built before 1978, federal law requires landlords to disclose “any known information concerning the presence of lead-based paint or lead-based paint hazards in the home or building,” according to the EPA. But the law doesn’t require what child health advocates say children need: the right to inspect a house before renting. In Cleveland, mandatory inspection kicks in after blood tests show a child has been poisoned. Then, all the places the child frequented—school, day care and homes—are tested in order to find the source of lead contamination.
Residents can also apply to the city’s lead hazard control program, if young children live in the home or visit frequently. But Maurer said the city needs to focus on prevention, not just cure. “We’re using our kids as lead detectors,” she explained. “It’s time to go to a preventative model and test homes before they poison kids.”
In 2017, when Maurer worked for Legal Aid, she sued to make the city follow state law by notifying families living in contaminated housing. The suit claimed city officials waited months to tell one toddler’s family their home was unsafe, despite having found lead-contaminated dust in the toddler’s playroom. A 2018 ruling by the 8th District Ohio Court of Appeals ordered the city to place placards on four hundred residences with known lead hazards. Landlords were given ninety days to clean the homes, although in severe cases tenants had to move out.
But Maurer said the city has done little follow-up. She noted volunteers who are now with CLASH drove to contaminated homes to check for placards. Homes in Maurer’s own neighborhood were tagged. “The placards went up and they have orders to vacate on them. But nothing happened,” she said. (A spreadsheet from the Cleveland Health Department shows 434 homes were placarded, eighty-five of which complied by cleaning up the lead.)
That effort was just another lurching step in the city’s efforts to clean up the city’s tainted houses. Cleveland’s Department of Public Health has historically had such a poor track record of identifying and cleaning tainted houses that, in 2012, it lost $2 million of a grant it had received from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for a lead cleanup program, as well as oversight of the program. The grant was saved when the remaining $11 million was transferred to the Community Development Department. (Three years later, in 2015, funding was restored.)
CLASH made its presence known when the city council met on April 15. About twenty-five members, wearing t-shirts with the organization’s branding, lined the corridor leading to the council chambers. When council members walked into the chambers, they got a copy of the group’s statement lambasting Britt’s decision, and asking council members to hold hearings and a full council vote on the proposed initiative.
For now, the groups are at an impasse.
Once inside, the group filled three rows of seats. Toward the end of the meeting, council member Griffin stood up. “Even though people have fervent disagreements, we all care deeply and are very passionate,” he said. “So therefore, I’d be remiss if I did not acknowledge the members of CLASH. I would ask if they would like to stand up.”
Griffin represents a swath of Cleveland East side neighborhoods from Little Italy and University Circle to parts of Union-Miles and Slavic Village. The communities include some of the city’s more affluent areas, like University Circle, as well as its poorest: Slavic Village, North Broadway and Union-Miles. Those poorer areas are home to hundreds of lead-contaminated residences.
But Griffin did not urge fellow council members to consider the ordinance CLASH drafted. Instead, he reiterated the council would stay its course: “But it’s also our responsibility in council, to stick with the timeline, and game plan that we have in order so that every sector feels like they’re included,” he said. Those sectors include city departments, like the health department, that will have to implement the new policy, he said in an interview days before the council meeting.
For now, the groups are at an impasse. Lead Safe Cleveland still plans to send its recommendations to city council by May 1, and, according to a press release, CLASH plans to file for a writ of mandamus the first week of May, attempting to force the council into considering its plan. In a recent editorial, the Plain Dealer called on city council president Kevin Kelley to “Do the right thing: Put [the] CLASH lead safe proposal on the agenda.” “Kelley and City Council can show they will act when the times and need require by moving ahead now to consider, understand, refine and improve the CLASH proposal,” the editorial concluded.
Meanwhile, Angela Williams’s life has been bookended by Cleveland’s haphazard approach to lead abatement. When she was growing up, Williams remembers her mother being absent—spending months in a hospital at one point—and being short-tempered and angry when she did come around. The reasons weren’t apparent until Williams began to care for her mother herself. “I had my mother properly tested because they never told us specifically what my mother’s diagnosis is. All I know is she’s been disabled all her life,” Williams said. “My mother was diagnosed as bipolar, with a mixture that includes lead poisoning and alcohol.”
Lead is affecting her mother’s aging process as well. “[Lead poisoning) has slowed down her motor skills, and her ability to think and retain information,” Williams said. She’d hoped to break that generational trend with her grandchildren. But her youngest grandchild was poisoned when her daughter moved into East Cleveland, a suburb adjacent to Cleveland proper. The family didn’t know until the child took a physical with his siblings. “His brother and sister got physicals for school, so everyone got physicals. He’s got to be tested again, so we can watch his levels.”
These days, Williams keeps a wary eye on the black-and white house with the sagging back porch to her left, and the green-and-white house with the broken windows to her right. She wonders whether covering her yard with wood chips will protect her grandson from tainted soil. “All these home have wood with the durable lead paint exterior. Over the years they went over that paint, but these homes have garages in the back. Those wooden garages with the paint, all that is in the soil,” she said.
And she’s pessimistic that anything will be done. “It’s like, what can you do?” she said. “It’s just so terrible.” ■
Afi Scruggs is an independent journalist who covers social justice issues. She lives in Cleveland, where she writes and plays bass.
Cover image by Ray Dehler/Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
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