I didn’t realize there is a category of ‘lead safe’ vs ‘lead free’. Sounds like a much saner approach to management.
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s concerns about rental inspections: Displacing poor families, burdening landlords Rachel Dissell, Brie Zeltner, The Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Mayor Frank Jackson said that if an ethical or moral standard were applied to inspecting Cleveland’s low-income rental homes for safety, about three quarters of it would be “closed up.”
Jackson made the comment last week when discussing the city’s long awaited and soon-to-be implemented plan to start citywide inspections of rental units in response to its ongoing lead poisoning crisis.
That crisis was revealed in 2015 by The Plain Dealer’s Toxic Neglect series, which brought to light serious failings in how the city responded to cases of childhood lead poisoning. Without enough staff to keep up, less than half of the homes where children were poisoned over a recent five-year period were inspected, the newspaper’s analysis found.
“One of the reasons why our people are taking so long is because of that– that decision around that moral dilemma,” Jackson said during an annual meeting with Cleveland.com reporters and editors.
The dilemma, as Jackson explained it: if the city too quickly or too aggressively inspects rental properties for health hazards and safety violations such as peeling paint, mold and broken toilets, families may be put out of their homes and landlords unable to rent their properties.
“If you’re talking about a very mechanical kind of thing, you know, half of the places would be closed up,” Jackson said. “If you’re talking about it in terms of the ethical or moral thing, probably three quarters of the places would be closed up. It’s the way it is.”
Reaction to Jackson’s sweeping comments were mixed among those closest to the issue, some saying the mayor put a finger on a problem central to improving the safety of city housing; others arguing his off-the-cuff estimates exaggerate the problem and provide an easy excuse for delay or inaction.
The city’s first-ever foray into routine rental inspections is scheduled to begin in the summer and will involve a new team of 13 inspectors hired with money from November’s income tax increase. (LINK to timeline)
In addition to interior and exterior peeling paint which may indicate lead hazards, inspectors will look for mold, excessive extension cord use, and ensure homes have basic necessities like hot and cold water, flushing toilets and working carbon monoxide detectors. checklist.pngA check list of what Cleveland’s new rental inspection unit will look for in homes as they begin inspections in July.
Jackson, again speaking at the meeting, expressed concern about green-lighting immediate citywide inspection of all rental properties or inspecting for “everything from lead to a leaking faucet, to a roof that’s leaking, to a hole, some plaster off the wall, the need for paint.” Instead, the city plans to phase in its inspections over a five-year period, focusing on specific safety issues in rental homes that are registered with the city.
Listen to Jackson’s comments in the audio player below.
Jackson deals in unfortunate reality
Some say the mayor’s concerns and the city’s five-year plan reflect an unfortunate reality in Cleveland.
“He [Jackson] knows the situation. He’s an absolute realist,” said Tom Bier, a senior fellow at Cleveland State University’s Levin College of Urban Affairs with 40 years of experience studying the city’s housing market.
Bier said it’s more likely that about one-third of city rentals are in bad condition. In 2015, a citywide survey by the non-profit Thriving Communities Institute of residential and commercial properties found less then 5 percent of all structures to be in “D” or “F” condition, though it only examined the exterior of homes.
Nobody thinks children should be living in unsafe housing, Bier said, and it makes sense to fix the problems upfront rather than pay steep medical and social costs later.
But that’s not the ways things work here: “It’s brutal. But it’s reality,” he said.
Meredith Greif, a sociologist and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University said policy makers like Jackson have to consider how their actions will affect access to housing.
Greif is part of a project that’s conducted interviews with hundreds of low income families, landlords and court and policy makers in Baltimore, Dallas and Cleveland.
On one hand, Greif says code enforcement helps ensure homes are livable, especially for poor children and families. But if landlords are hit with hefty fines for violations, what will happen?
We want to make things safer for kids, but we need to move the bar slowly.
Some, she said, might get out of the business altogether.
“It’s a quandary,” she said. “It’s a terrible situation all around.”
Profit margins for landlords can be surprisingly thin, Greif said. There are some for whom the business is quite lucrative, but others report they usually break even or make only a small profit.
“The vast majority of landlords with whom I spoke are not absentee, fly by night landlords but ones who have been in the business for quite some time, many well over a decade, and who report taking housing code rather seriously,” Greif said.
Cleveland Councilman Tony Brancatelli supports the phased approach to rolling out the new inspections, with ample time to educate landlords and give them a chance to make repairs before inspectors come knocking.
“As much as I go after landlords, I want to make sure we think about and know the cost of this,” he said.
Some, especially those who want high “healthy housing” standards for mold and across-the-board use of the more stringent dust wipe tests for lead, might not be happy. Brancatelli thinks those standards, while admirable, would fail.
The Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority only targets peeling paint in its low-income unit inspections and that standard seems to work well, Brancatelli said. Kids in CMHA housing have lower rates of poisoning.
“We want to make things safer for kids,” he said. “But we need to move the bar slowly.”
No evidence for widespread displacement, advocates say
Child health and housing advocates, though, take issue with several of the Mayor’s statements.
“We need to strongly resist the notion that a leaky faucet is the same risk (to children) as a neurotoxin,” that can immediately and irreparably damage young developing brains like lead can, said Spencer Wells, a longtime housing advocate speaking on behalf of the newly-formed Cleveland Lead Safe Network.
The network hopes to encourage legislation that promotes “lead-safe” housing for kids, a standard that does not require homes to be completely free of lead, only for any known lead hazards to be controlled. It’s a standard that protects kids and is affordable, Wells said.
Making rental homes lead-free, on the other hand, can be prohibitively expensive for many homeowners without outside help.
Still, Wells said, that’s not what’s required of property owners in most cases. The U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires homes to be made lead-safe and then be maintained, for example.
“Conflating lead-free and lead-safe leads folks to conclude, well, there’s nothing we can do,” Wells said.
Dr. Aparna Bole, medical director of community integration and a pediatrician at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, was most concerned about Jackson’s suggestion that rental inspections would displace families.
“That hasn’t been true at all in other cities that have implemented a rental inspection program,” she said, including Rochester, New York (a city highlighted in The Plain Dealer’s Toxic Neglect series which Cleveland used in part as a model for its plan) and Baltimore.
“I’m the first to say that availability of affordable and safe housing stock is incredibly important to public health, so no part of me would want to recommend removing that housing. But that just hasn’t been true anywhere else.”
Officials in Rochester said concerns similar to Jackson’s were floated a decade ago when the city instituted citywide inspections for lead hazards that have since resulted in a more than 80 percent drop in the number of kids known to be poisoned by lead.
The landlords who left the market, a housing official told The Plain Dealer, were ones who shouldn’t have been there anyway. The rest adjusted.
Yvonka Hall, a landlord and member of the Cleveland Lead Safe Network, agrees that many Cleveland landlords aren’t making money hand over fist.
They might need help — zero-interest loans for window replacement, for example–in order to make their properties lead-safe.
But children, who are the most vulnerable, deserve the most protection, said Hall, who served as director of the city’s office of minority health until 2012.
“If your whole campaign has been ‘looking out for the least of us’ then the children who are being poisoned would be at the top of that list, because they can’t control their circumstances.”