CLEVELAND, Ohio – Last week, Toledo became the first city in Ohio to pass a law that prevents lead poisoning in the most at-risk children by requiring home inspections of rental properties.
Starting next year, the city’s new “lead-safe ordinance” will require most of its rental properties—about 55,000 units– to be inspected and deemed free from lead hazards, which can cause irreversible damage to the developing brain.
A coalition of legal rights and social justice advocates, environmental nonprofits and academic institutions headed Toledo’s grassroots efforts in response to the city’s high lead poisoning rate.
The only city in Ohio with more lead poisoning cases: Cleveland.
Robert Cole, managing attorney at the non-profit regional law firm Advocates for Basic Legal Equity (ABLE), said Toledo’s success holds a direct lesson for Cleveland.
“If the backwaters of Toledo can to it, then the high class culture of Cleveland, with everything else you have going on can do it,” he said.
A coalition pushed law
Toledo’s ordinance took three years to pass due to opposition from landlords and concerns about privacy.
Some proponents who helped form the Toledo Lead Poisoning Prevention Coalition (TLPPC) credit the crisis in Flint, Michigan with helping convince city leaders that it was time to pass the ordinance.
The 60-member coalition included community agencies, medical institutions, church groups and families affected by lead poisoning.
With the help of Ohio State’s Kirwan Institute for Race and Ethnicity, the group set out to educate city council members and residents on the nature and scope of the problem.
“This was an issue of racial and environmental justice,” Cole said. “Eighty percent of poisoned kids were black kids who lived in rental homes.”
The goal was to make sure it wasn’t palatable to vote against legislation that could prevent future poisonings among these children.
Still, there was opposition, Cole said, particularly from landlords. Some argued in public meetings that if people took better care of their apartments or cleaned better, their children wouldn’t be lead poisoned, an idea that’s been debunked by research on the topic.
Children who are exposed to lead, a toxin that disrupts brain development, can suffer lifelong health, learning and behavioral problems.
Toledo Councilman Larry Sykes, whose version of the ordinance passed Tuesday, said ensuring homes don’t have chipping and peeling paint or hazardous levels of lead dust isn’t any different than a landlord’s responsibility to fix a leaking roof or a broken water heater.
Sykes said his former jobs of helping to turn around the beleaguered Lucas Metropolitan Housing Authority and as a Toledo Public School Board member, taught him about the steep costs of not addressing the lead problem.
Sykes said the law isn’t perfect and that adjustments may be made, like taking out a provision that requires landlords to provide tenants’ names. “But it’s a start,” he said.
Toledo’s law is similar to one that passed in Rochester, New York in 2005, credited with helping drop lead poisoning levels among that city’s children by 80 percent.
Toledo’s ordinance will take effect in a year to allow time for landlords to be trained and for more lead risk assessors to be trained.
It isn’t expected to be a big drain on public resources because the law allows for landlords to hire private lead risk assessors to do the inspections.
In fact, passing a law like this statewide would save Ohio money, said Ohio Healthy Homes Network Coordinator Patricia Barnes. It would cut down on spending on public health lead inspections, health care, developmental assessments, special education and in the criminal justice system by preventing kids from becoming lead poisoned in the first place.
Will Cleveland follow suit?
Kim Foreman, who heads the Cleveland non-profit Environmental Health Watch, has pushed for Cleveland’s City Council to draft legislation that proactively inspects for lead hazards.
Toledo’s progress shows “that it can be done,” she said.
“We need to capture the moment with lead,” Foreman said.
She thinks Cleveland could, if it wanted to, go further and create a “Healthy Home” maintenance certificate for rentals that also includes things like being free of mold and other hazards that pose serious health risks to children.
A decade ago City Council made an attempt to pass a proactive lead ordinance, and created lead free maintenance certificates. After opposition mounted, though, council made the certificate voluntary. No landlord applied for or received a certificate.
Last fall, The Plain Dealer revealed that for years the city’s Public Health Department failed to properly respond and inspect homes suspected of poisoning children; or to follow up with legal action when a home was found to be hazardous to children and wasn’t fixed. Prevention was limited to a small scale public education effort.
Since then, the city has been working to determine the extent of the problem and is meeting periodically with the state to avoid losing the authority to perform its own lead investigations.
Cleveland still doesn’t have enough public health lead investigators on staff and has contracted with the Cuyahoga County Board of Health and with Environmental Health Watch to use their investigators to attempt to keep up with current lead poisoning cases.
City officials have promised to hire three new investigators and work to train building and housing inspectors to help with identifying lead hazards if a proposed income tax increase passes in November.
That’s the most the city has done to address the problem in at least a decade – but it isn’t a full scale prevention effort.
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has said little publicly about the state of the lead poisoning program, instead giving Chief of Public Affairs Natoya Walker Minor the task of turning around the program.
At his annual state of the city address, Jackson said Cleveland needed “a true partnership: public, private and philanthropic” to tackle the decades old problem.
“And we have not gotten there yet, we have not gotten there yet,” he said.
The administration did not respond to a request for comment on the Toledo legislation.
City Councilman Brian Cummins, who recently took over as head of council’s Health and Human Services committee, said he plans to speak to council members in Toledo to see what Cleveland can learn from their efforts.
“The main thing that I get from this is, like most things, there was a will to somehow to get it done,” he said.
Cummins said he’ll hold a hearing on the lead poisoning issue next month. It will be at least the third time council has discussed the issue publicly.
He’s frustrated that the mechanics of moving toward a solution have been slow, in part, because of chronic funding and other problems in the city’s health, building and housing and community development departments.
“For all the time and money we have put into reform at [the Cleveland school district] we should be able to put a similar effort into this,” he said.
The law applies to about 55,000 rentals built before 1978 with between one and four units, and to home day cares.