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Cleveland's Landlords Have Questions On Lead-Safe Proposal

Akbar Tyler of Environmental Health Watch demonstrates how painted windows and other friction points in a home can be a source of lead hazards. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
Akbar Tyler of Environmental Health Watch demonstrates how painted windows can be a source of lead hazards

Landlords have plenty to say about Cleveland’s proposed lead-safe ordinance.

ideastream and the Plain Dealer heard from 80 rental property owners in an online survey about lead mitigation. Some respondents raised questions about how the law would work, how the city would enforce it and why it focuses solely on rentals.

Our newsrooms set out to answer those questions. ideastream’s Nick Castele and The Plain Dealer’s Rachell Dissell spoke with Morning Edition host Amy Eddings about what they found.


Who are these landlords? Are they big landlords with lots of properties, small landlords?

We heard from about 80 landlords who took the survey and probably about 20 more who called and emailed us. They own older properties — the ones most at risk for lead paint problems — and own or manage between one and four rentals in neighborhoods across the city.

Many said they registered their rentals with the city. While a third said they tested units for lead paint, more said they’ve taken steps to reduce lead hazards.


Graphic by Cid Standifer / The Plain Dealer


Landlords’ No. 1 question was: Why apply these requirements only to landlords while letting owner-occupied homes off the hook? Is there a clear answer to that?

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University created a set of data called the "rental universe." Using data from lead tests, they examined areas of Cleveland with high, medium and low risks for lead poisoning. They found about 69 percent of housing units in high-risk areas are rentals.

The Plain Dealer then looked at residences where inspectors have found lead paint. In 2018, 73 percent of those properties were rentals.


Graphic by Cid Standifer / The Plain Dealer


"This idea that neighborhoods with higher proportions of rental housing have higher proportions of children testing positive for lead, that is not just a finding in the city of Cleveland," said Claudia Coulton, director of Case Western’s Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development. "That tends to be found in many places."

Although Cleveland's legislation focuses on rental property owners, advocates of the measure have said they don’t want to leave homeowners out of the lead paint conversation entirely.

"We want to make sure that, through our Lead Safe Resource Center, homeowners have the ability to learn about lead safety and have the ability to engage in that conversation to ensure that their homes are lead safe as well," Councilman Kerry McCormack said.

Some landlords asked why paint company Sherwin-Williams can’t pay for cleanup. Should they have some skin in the game here?

Sherwin-Williams and other paint companies recently reached a $305 million settlement with several California cities and counties in long-running litigation over lead paint. Cleveland and other cities in Ohio couldn’t take that route, because the Ohio legislature essentially made it impossible to sue paint companies over lead poisoning.

So far, Sherwin-Williams hasn't made a monetary commitment to Cleveland's lead-safe efforts. But company spokesman Mike Conway told The Plain Dealer that the company is willing to train workers to paint homes with a lead risk. Sherwin-Williams also plans to donate paint and supplies.

The legislation requires new lead inspections every two years. You heard some people question why they need to be inspected again and again. What’s the answer?

Jurisdictions around the country require lead testing at intervals ranging from one to six years. Cleveland’s lead-safe coalition looked to requirements from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which maintains a two-year inspection routine for public housing and multi-family units with lead risks.

"If you're not doing all abatement, removing all the lead, interim controls require ongoing monitoring," said Akbar Tyler, who does lead-safe and healthy homes work with Environmental Health Watch. "You have to consistently make sure the paint is intact and it’s not creating a hazard."

Property owners who can show they've performed full abatement would be exempt from Cleveland's proposed lead-safe certificate requirement.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.