Cuyahoga County Grapples With Loss of Lead Funding

Akbar Tyler, a home inspector with Environmental Health Watch, puts tile over the peeling lead paint on a back porch.
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When a trained environmental health worker like Akbar Tyler walks into a home, it doesn't take long to figure out how the house is poisoning its residents.

Tyler, with his measuring device in hand, looks down at the chipped and peeling paint in the doorway of an enclosed back porch.

"So these surfaces like this, this is definitely lead,  this paint right here, so they walk out here," Tyler says. "Yeah, he's in danger because of this....This is on people's shoes."

One-year-old Joe-Von Clevenger is toddling around with a pacifier in hand, rubbing his eyes.

Across Cuyahoga County, 15 percent of children tested under age 6 have been lead poisoned at some point since birth.  Models predict lead poisoning in the county's urban neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs may be much higher--as much as 30% of all kids under six.

A high blood lead level is defined as having 5 micrograms per deciliter or more of lead in their blood. Enough - health experts agree - to mentally stunt them and cause behavior problems like aggression and hyperactivity disorder.

Dr. Dorr Dearborn is a researcher at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University.

"Sometimes people think, oh, the lead problem is solved. No. It is not solved," Dearborn says. It is solved generally across the country but there are still in all of our inner cities with older houses and even in our rural areas with rural housing, it's still a significant problem and it still has an impact on our developing generation."

In rust-belt cities like Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Baltimore there are still thousands of dilapidated houses with lead-based paint.

Since the early 1990s, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, have poured nearly $60 million into Cuyahoga County. The money went to Cuyahoga County's health department and the city of Cleveland. Nearly 5,000 houses have been worked on.

Environmental Health Watch, the housing nonprofit Akbar Tyler works for, also had its own small grant for house remediation. The grant was used to fix 183 houses. It ended in April.

Out of those three, the county's program was considered the stronghold. So, there was surprise and confusion when the county failed for the first time in its program's history to win a federal housing grant. John Sobolewski heads the county's lead program.

"We performed, we've exceeded our benchmarks and we've done this very successfully for many years… in the absence of funding we lose that forward momentum," Sobolewski says. "We lose the ability to actively go out and serve communities of need."  

There is intense competition for the grants, says Eric Hornbuckle, who is acting director over HUD's lead hazard control program.

"Every year, 50 percent of the communities that apply don't get funded," Hornbuckle says. 

Hornbuckle said Northeast Ohio's agencies simply didn't turn in the most competitive applications. At the same time, he says federal officials are expecting more of the participating communities than they did a decade ago.

"It's great that you did 100 units a year, but so what? What did it do to the community? Did we see children staying in school? Did we see violence of crime levels decreasing? Did we see better birthweights in children as a result of this? What kinds of outcomes are we looking at?" Hornbuckle says.

Too often, lead poisoning is one of many health and wellness concerns for a family's home.  Federal officials want communities to be able to tell a story about how they have improved lives.

Cuyahoga County's Sobolewski talked with HUD officials and left frustrated.

"I have direct notes here that we took at the meeting but it referred to perhaps not painting a compelling story in terms of a narrative from start to finish," Sobolewski says.

Then, he adds, "the debriefing, and I'm not being cryptic, wasn't very helpful in forms of guiding us on what to do on the next application."

Cuyahoga County is now working on its next application, which it will submit before the end of June.

Back at toddler Joe-Von Clevenger's house in Cleveland's St. Clair-Superior neighborhood, Akbar Tyler completes one of his final visits under the county's grant program.  

"This is the end, pretty much no more funding," Tyler says.

Tyler can't offer money to help fix the Clevenger's house, but he can offer advice to Joe-Van's grandmother, 40-year-old Mattie Johnson.  

"I tested the store room and it's hot, there is lead paint all over it," he tells Johnson, "Just cover it up, you can put a big rug in there for now… quickly, quickly because it's a hazard, you don't want him poisoned, yeah, it'd be the worst."

The boy's mother is sitting nearby.  She says Joe-Von hasn't tested positive for lead - yet. But she fears what might happen if he eats the lead off the walls. She doesn't want him to get sick.

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