Wherever La’Chreasha Wheeler turned for help after her toddler was poisoned by lead paint chips in their rented home in 2022, she seemed to hit a dead end.
After Sariyah was hospitalized, city health officials told Wheeler about a county program to help the family relocate. Wheeler said the county told her she was eligible for $750. It wasn’t enough to move, so she didn’t bother to apply.
When Wheeler’s landlord failed to follow the city’s order to clean up the hazards in the Collinwood home, the city had options. It could have prosecuted the landlord in Housing Court. It also could have used nuisance laws to move the family, fix the hazards and add the cost to the landlord’s tax bill. It didn’t.
Wheeler sued the landlord in Cleveland Housing Court, which led to 10 months of legal wrangling before a magistrate ordered the company to do the work and pay for the family to relocate temporarily. Even that progress was short-lived. City health officials shut down the project because the contractors were not licensed to work with lead hazards. They left the family’s possessions — mattresses, a couch, even some of Sariyah’s toys — coated with poisonous dust from lead paint.
For weeks after that, the family bounced between short-term rentals that the landlord had paid for. Then the landlord stopped paying. They were officially homeless.
Wheeler doesn’t understand why there wasn’t help for her family – or others in the same situation.
In 2019, Cleveland City Council passed laws requiring landlords to ensure that their properties are lead safe. That same year, the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition, a partnership of nonprofits and local government officials, started raising money to support the massive remediation of rental homes, eventually building a fund of more than $100 million.
Shortly after taking office, Mayor Justin Bibb hired a senior lead strategist, dubbed the Lead Czar. Karen Dettmer, who already worked in the city’s health department, took on the job of coordinating the city’s response to lead poisoning across departments and with the community.
But as of now there still is no emergency safety net in place to assist families who find themselves displaced with nowhere to go.
“The city has resources that they’re not even tapping into,” Wheeler said. “And that’s unfair. And it’s not just unfair to me and my children, it’s unfair to anyone in this situation.”
The city and its coalition partners say they don’t think the new lead safe certificate program is displacing families because of the incentives, grants and loans that are available to help landlords. But they acknowledge that resources are more limited after a child is poisoned and a landlord doesn’t follow the city’s orders to clean up the hazards. No one tracks how often families in that situation are displaced.
In the past, the city often failed to follow up on lead poisoning reports, inspect homes and place warning signs. Now, city officials said the health department has improved its response to the hundreds of children who are lead poisoned in Cleveland each year.
But Cleveland has only two options for families whose homes have hazards that need to be cleaned up: A referral to a county program that can help with relocation from an unsafe environment, or encouraging the tenant and landlord to apply for federal grants the city has for lead remediation. Those come with a temporary relocation stipend.
A Cuyahoga County spokesperson said a total of 70 applicants received money for rent assistance or moving expenses in 2022. But the county doesn’t track whether the money is related to lead poisoning.
Wheeler and Maria Smith, the Legal Aid attorney who is helping the family, said they did not receive information about the Lead Hazard Control Program. The attorney for Hadad Investments, the Wheelers’ landlord, did not answer questions about whether it was aware of the federal grant program.
Advocates warned about displacement
The displacement dilemma predates the formation of the Lead Safe Coalition. Yvonka Hall and Spencer Wells were helping families through the process in 2016, when they founded the grassroots group Cleveland Lead Safe Network (CLSN).
The lead poisoning hotline the group launched received frequent calls from parents facing tough choices: stay in a hazardous home or struggle to quickly find a new, safe, affordable place to live. All Wells and Hall could do was refer them to the few federal programs and housing services that existed.
“It was a real nightmare sometimes,” Wells said. “Every case is always different. Every family had a different need.”
“Our job,” added Hall, “was to point them in the direction of the right resources and not give them the runaround.”
In 2019, CLSN joined with other groups to form Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing (CLASH), which collected more than 6,000 signatures to urge City Council to adopt lead-safe housing legislation. Their proposal, which didn’t make it to the ballot, included suggestions for resources to help families relocate if they were displaced by work to rid a home of lead hazards. Members of the coalition also urged the city to include tenant protections in the legislation.
The legislation that eventually passed didn’t include those protections or specific plans to help families that could be displaced if the city stepped up enforcement of existing lead hazard violations. Instead, in a single paragraph, it gave that responsibility to a new entity, Lead Safe Housing Action Board (LSHAB).
‘Self-selected brainstorming subcommittee’ charged with supporting displaced families
The legislation set the board’s mission: “supporting families who must relocate as a result of a lead hazard control order, lead safe maintenance or lead poisoning.” (A lead hazard control order is issued after a child is poisoned in their home.) It also called for the board to be made up of “representatives from nonprofit entities funded by the city that provide housing in the city,” but it didn’t name them.
The nonprofits were supposed to meet at least twice a year and maintain a list of available housing for families that need to relocate. Progress has been slow.
The board has met. But irregularly. It is a board with open membership that described itself in one document as “a self-selected brainstorming subcommittee.” No list of available housing was created. Responding to questions from Signal Cleveland, a city spokesperson said that instead of “recreat[ing] the wheel,” families are referred to affordablehousing.com.
In December 2021, the board submitted a draft report to city officials outlining the challenges of helping families that need relocation assistance or were temporarily or permanently displaced due to lead poisoning – including the fact that nobody knew how many families were affected. Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit that builds and advocates for affordable housing, helped finalize the report in July 2022.
The report noted that there was little monitoring of displacement and that the help available for families or individuals experiencing displacement was “very limited.”
“The lack of existing resources for displacement underscores a much larger issue,” the report stated. “There is an overall shortage of safe, decent housing, which includes families facing displacement from lead.”
The city told Signal Cleveland the coalition has hired Case Western Reserve University, which already acts as Lead Safe Auditor for the city, to analyze displacement. (Update: Lead Safe Auditor Rob Fischer told Signal Cleveland that data from evictions is being gathered. But information about displacement related to lead hazard control orders is not.)
The board also pitched to city officials four possible pilot programs to help families at risk for displacement. Each would require city funding.
- Creating a stipend, available through the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition, to temporarily relocate families.
- Paying a housing provider to create a “master lease” that would make two lead safe units available for families for up to six months.
- Identifying two homes in city and county land banks that could be fixed up for displaced families to live for up to a year.
- Helping families relocate permanently by adding more funding to existing programs.
City officials said they accepted the coalition’s pilot proposals. Ultimately, the city and coalition agreed to use some federal stimulus money to tackle the displacement issue. Last year, the city had approved $17 million for the coalition. It later reduced that amount to $13 million. Cleveland officials said they needed the additional $4 million for lead remediation projects not covered by federal grants and to hire two prosecutors to help with enforcement efforts.
In August 2022, as the Wheeler family was fighting its battle in Housing Court, the coalition began looking for an administrator – likely a housing nonprofit – to run some of the pilot programs. The city and coalition agreed to use up to $2.65 million of those federal stimulus dollars awarded to the coalition to support the process (the amount was later reduced to $2 million). Coalition members said there was only a single response to the call for applications and that the entity was not qualified to run the pilot programs.
The coalition said it is going to try again and is working to prepare a new request to do the work, which should be released later this year.
In addition, the city set aside $200,000 in federal community development grant funding to give to the coalition to help with displacement. During budget hearings, a city official said that money would help families with displacement related to the city’s lead safe certification program. The city told Signal Cleveland it would be used to help fund pilot programs in the coalition’s proposal.
Providing help for displaced families is a “missing piece,” said Ayonna Blue Donald, Vice President of Ohio Market at Enterprise Community Partners. And it will be even more important if the city steps up efforts to make landlords comply with the lead safe certificates and fixing known hazards. “We hope this kind of work buttresses what the city is doing, especially when you think about how they aim to enforce the lead hazard control orders in a more aggressive way.”
Progress on enforcement remains slow
Last month, Mayor Justin Bibb vowed to take a more aggressive approach to dealing with predatory landlords and unsafe rental homes in the city.
The city started filing affidavits in county property records for homes that have unaddressed lead paint hazards. The move alerts potential buyers that toxic paint is present and the property must be cleaned up.
“We believe this will go a long way to keep families safe,” Bibb said in his State of the City Speech. “And stop property owners from making quick fixes and exacerbate our lead problem and poison our babies.”
Affidavits have been filed against 200 properties as of the first week of May, including the home the Wheelers rented on E. 144th Street.
The city also has other ways to deal with landlords who don’t follow health department orders. It can file charges in criminal court.
In the Wheelers’ case, nine months after the city ordered the landlord to clean up lead hazards, health officials forwarded the case to the law department for prosecution. No case has been filed. City officials said the case was still “pending review.”
The city told Signal Cleveland it has not prosecuted a single property owner for failing to follow a lead hazard control order. The city’s law department is working to “expand the city’s code enforcement section to work more proactively and aggressively in this area,” a spokesperson said.
Council Member Rebecca Maurer said the city has made drastic improvements in its response to lead poisoning cases. In 2017, when Maurer was a Legal Aid lawyer, she represented a toddler who was poisoned in her rental on the city’s West Side. The case illustrated the health department’s failure to respond to hundreds of lead poisoning cases. The city later agreed to start complying with Ohio law and to post warning signs at hazardous homes.
The Wheelers’ case demonstrates that more needs to be done, she said. Maurer said more landlords must comply with the lead safe certification program. More homes that have already poisoned kids need funding to be abated. And more programming needs to be available to families who are displaced after lead hazards are found.
There is an existing law that empowers the city to control nuisances – including lead hazards. The city can pay to relocate a family and to clean up hazards from a property and add the costs to the property owner’s tax bill. It’s not a long-term fix, but Maurer said it should be used in the Wheelers’ case.
Smith said she has met with city officials from the law, building and housing and health departments three times since October to urge them to use city resources to relocate families and charge the costs to the owner under the legislation. The Wheeler family’s case was an example she used in her meetings with officials.
For Smith, the city has been slow to use the tools it does have to make life tolerable for families like the Wheelers in situations where the landlord can leverage their power over a tenant.
“I don’t want to slam [the city], I just want to encourage them,” she said. “Now is the time to get it up to speed.”