La’Chreasha Wheeler reported to another virtual court hearing at the Legal Aid offices on St. Patrick’s Day. Her hair was slicked into a high ponytail. She was dressed in black and losing patience.
Wheeler wasn’t the only one at the hearing who was exasperated. In recent weeks, the obstacles had mounted and her attorney, Maria Smith, was looking for some accountability.
To Smith, the case had become a microcosm of how the legal system often operates, favoring those with power over the needs of families like the Wheelers. It wasn’t about one landlord not cleaning up lead hazards in one house. It was about the ripple effect it creates for the wider community when it happens again and again, she said.
“It hurts everybody in the end,” Smith said.
The hearing was to sort out what would happen next in Wheeler’s 10-month-long case against her landlord, Hadad Investments LLC.
In February, a housing court magistrate had again ordered Hadad to clean up the lead paint hazards that had poisoned now-3-year-old Sariyah Wheeler.
City inspectors halted work on the home after they found the contractors were not licensed to deal with lead hazards. Those contractors had left the Wheelers’ furniture, clothes and toys covered in toxic paint dust.
The landlord had stopped paying for temporary housing for Wheeler and her two daughters, who had been shuffling between short-term arrangements for months.
Smith, a seasoned Legal Aid attorney who once was a housing court magistrate herself, decided the court needed to hear how this dragged-out process was affecting the Wheeler family.
Smith asked Wheeler about what the family had gone through in recent weeks: What was the experience like for you?
Wheeler shared that her 13-year-old daughter, Ashari, recently had an emotional breakdown in school. She got into a fight with one of her classmates. Between these incidents and Ashari missing multiple days of her eighth grade year, the school pulled her out for the rest of the year.
Wheeler’s lack of control over the situation flooded her with guilt.
“It’s causing both myself and my daughter to go back into dark places that we don’t want to be in and that we don’t deserve to be in,” Wheeler testified to the magistrate.
The landlord’s lawyer, Mark Immormino, shared his own frustrations with the court. He argued that his client had done everything the magistrate had ordered and spent close to $3,000 a month to provide Wheeler and her family with Airbnbs.
“The goal had always been to get Wheeler and her family into lead-safe housing,” said Immormino.
It had been hard to find a contractor willing to clean up the lead hazards, he said. The landlord had fired one property manager and hired another one. The new property manager had hired the unlicensed contractor, and now the house was in even worse condition, even more hazardous, Immormino said. Hadad Investments and Wheeler are both suing that property manager.
The landlord also offered to move the family into another property he owned on Sylvia Avenue, the attorney said. But Wheeler said she would not move there unless the city certified the home as lead safe. Plus, another family was living there. (The city is also prosecuting the landlord for not maintaining the outside of that home.)
Smith countered that all of this could have been prevented if the landlord had followed the city’s law and determined whether the home had received a lead-safe certification before renting to Wheeler in 2021.
“We don’t want people that are investing in property to decide that it is not economically viable for [them] to pump any more money in it and then just walk away,” Smith said. “What does that do to our city?”
She asked Magistrate Tamela Womack to hold the landlord in contempt of court.
As the Zoom hearing came to a close, Womack apologized to everyone. It was her first time handling this sort of case, she said, and she didn’t realize how long the family would be out of the home – she thought it would just be a month – or how hard it would be to get the work done.
“Nobody should be in a situation like this,” the magistrate told Wheeler. “This won’t be resolved no matter who is held in contempt.”
Smith was unmoved. The court’s order was clear, she said. It’s a landlord’s responsibility to follow the law and to provide a safe home. Not to blame the tenant. Not to drag out the process, hoping tenants like Wheeler give up.
“There are thousands of families in this city that are in that position,” Smith said. “And this court has to make it clear that landlords cannot use their leverage of a tenant that has nowhere to go.”
Just another hearing
Cleveland’s Housing Court issued an order in mid-April, holding Hadad Investments LLC in contempt of court for failing to remediate hazards in Wheeler’s home and provide the family temporary housing. The court gave the landlord 14 days to hire a city-approved contractor and provide the Wheeler family two options for temporary housing that the city had certified as lead safe.
That never happened.
In May, they were back in court. That hearing lasted only 18 minutes.
Wheeler sat with arms crossed. She already knew the outcome: It would just be another hearing; another day where her family would be without a home; another day her case wouldn’t move forward. Nothing would change.
Immormino, the landlord’s attorney, told the magistrate he had received her order but couldn’t comply. It had been a “quagmire” to reach a contractor to get a quote for remediation with the lawsuits pending, he said.
The magistrate ordered the landlord to pay a $250 fine.
With nowhere to go, Wheeler and her children landed temporarily with her sister, who has a young son. It was hectic, living in a small, single-family home in Cleveland Heights. Wheeler and her children have all been sleeping on her sister’s living room couch.
Her older daughter, Ashari, ended up in the emergency room after an allergic reaction to the cat. Wheeler tries to shield Sariyah from it all by escaping to a nearby park, where she can play and be free.
A struggle to respond
Two days after the contempt hearing the Lead Safe Housing Action Board gathered for the first time in 10 months. The city called the meeting. It wasn’t announced to the public. (Signal Cleveland had for weeks been asking questions about the city’s response to lead hazard-related displacement.)
Of the roughly 80 people invited, 13 showed up. Only one was a housing provider. Most remained off-camera. There was no agenda. The Wheeler family was never mentioned. But the conversation touched on their recent experiences.
Michiel Wackers, assistant director of Community Development for Cleveland, clicked through a presentation. His slides rehashed the same potential pilot programs discussed the last time the board met in July 2022. The ones that coalition partners had no luck finding anybody to run. Wackers shared that the city had $200,000 in federal community development grants to try – yet again –for a pilot to find someone to provide emergency housing to families displaced by lead poisoning.
City Council Member Rebecca Maurer asked: Are there any thoughts about extra measures this group should be working on while we get pilot programing in place?
Maurer’s question was like a hot potato. It was volleyed to Ayonna Blue Donald, vice president of Ohio Market at Enterprise Community Partners, which has spearheaded much of the lead prevention work. Donald agreed it was an urgent issue, and one that deserved an urgent response. It would take time to get any of the pilot programs to help displaced families up and running.
What could be done in the meantime, she wondered.
“I’m interested to hear if anyone has any comments or ideas for that?” Donald asked.
The call was silent.