The federal government outlawed the use of lead in paint in 1978. Still over 40 years later, children in Cleveland and other cities in the United States are being poisoned by the presence of lead in older paint in homes in which they live.

The impact of lead exposure on children can be devastating.

Lead poisoning can harm children in permanent, lifelong ways. Research has shown that lead exposure, even at very low levels, can affect brain development and result in behavioral and other long-term developmental issues.

Understanding the Problem

A recent Case Western Reserve University study – “Downstream Consequences of Childhood Lead Poisoning: A Longitudinal Study of Cleveland Children from Birth to Early Adulthood” – found that:

…children with elevated lead levels in early childhood have significantly worse outcomes on markers of school success, and higher rates of adverse events in adolescence and early adulthood, compared to their non-exposed peers.

Local data show that 25% of children in Cleveland are exposed to lead at or above the CDC reference level by the time they start kindergarten. Lead-based paint and leaded dust are the primary causes of lead poisoning in Ohio. In Cleveland, more than 90% of the housing stock was built before 1978, when residential lead-based paint was outlawed.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has operated the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program since the early 1990s, and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has funded residential lead abatement programs for decades. Unfortunately, the problem has continued at a high level in Cleveland and in other communities with a large proportion of older housing.

Housing at Risk in Cleveland

The makeup of older housing in Cleveland requires a particular strategy to address lead poisoning hazards in residential neighborhoods. Another Case study, “Characteristics of Rental Properties and Landlords in Cleveland: Implications for Achieving Lead Safe Rental Housing”, examined the kinds of housing in Cleveland and made the following observations:

Single-family homes make up most of the city’s rental properties – accounting for nearly half of all rental units. Another 24% of properties are two-family homes; 21% are small buildings (with three to 20 units); and 12% are large buildings (with more than 20 units).

Nearly two-thirds of Cleveland’s rental properties are maintained in above average or good condition and have average market values – but the remainder are of relatively low value and in rather poor condition.

Among Cleveland landlords in 2018, more than 80% were listed as individual owners, owned only one property in the city of Cleveland and either lived or had a business address within Cuyahoga County. A significant proportion of the landlords (43%) had property that was classified as being in “bad condition” and/or of “very low market value” (29%).

Based on a combination over a dozen landlord characteristics, researchers divided the city’s landlords into three categories:

  • Type 1 were owners of single- or two-family homes in good condition and of average or above-average market value;
  • Type 2 landlords owned mostly doubles in bad condition with low market value; and
  • Type 3 landlords were larger operators, often corporate, holding properties of varying sizes and conditions.

These categories inform how best to engage and support different landlords. Understanding the properties in Cleveland that are at-risk – as well as how to involve property owners in the process – is a necessary part of a broader overall strategy.

Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition

Determining a meaningful approach to address the decades-long problem of lead poisoning in Cleveland requires a comprehensive and collaborative effort. I worked with Councilman Blaine Griffin, Chairman of City Council’s Committee on Health and Human Services – and an unprecedented group of community stakeholders, funders, subject matter experts and community advocates. I credit these community advocates and leaders with the creation of the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition – designed to reduce and someday eliminate lead poisoning as an issue for children who grow up in Cleveland.

In some ways, the Coalition is just getting started, but in other ways it already has an impressive list of accomplishments. From a recent publication from the Coalition – its “2020 Report” – these are the most recent accomplishments:

  • Supported the City of Cleveland to build and measure the roll out of the Lead Safe Certification System:
    • The City of Cleveland built the new system, and invested in technology and staff, while also engaging the Case Western Reserve University Poverty Center to serve as the new Lead Safe Auditor.
    • CWRU published a report entitled “Downstream Consequences of Childhood Lead Poisoning and Characteristics of Rental Properties and Landlords in Cleveland.”
    • The Coalition’s Research and Evaluation Committee established a multi-tiered framework for evaluating the Lead Safe Certification System and the Coalition overall.
  • Launched a Public Awareness Campaign
    • The Coalition launched a lead poisoning prevention and Lead Safe Certification public awareness campaign featuring our own community leaders. The campaign can be heard on the radio, seen at bus stops and inside buses or on flyers in your neighborhood and mailbox.
    • The Coalition launched a website entitled
    • The Lead Safe Home Summit Committee, led by the United Way of Greater Cleveland, hosted a series of virtual workshops for landlords on the Lead Safe Certification system and other housing policies and programs.
  • Advocated for Lead Safe Policies and Resources:
    • The Child Care Subcommittee, led by Starting Point, engaged Groundwork Ohio in producing a report, Building the Way to a Healthier Future, on lead safety in child care settings.
    • The joint Early Childhood Screening and Testing & Services/HHAC Subcommittee, led by Invest in Children and the Cuyahoga County Board of Health, coordinated messaging on lead testing for families, health care providers, and early childhood professionals, and facilitated a lead testing data collection and quality improvement project plan.
  • Secured Investments in the Lead Safe Home Fund:
    • Because of our ongoing belief of pairing mandates with incentives, the Coalition has raised nearly $30 million for the Lead Safe Home Fund to support property owners.
    • Secured private sector investments from foundations, a Medicaid managed care organization, community development financial institutions, banks, and more.
    • Worked toward closing a first-of-its-kind, $14 million initial loan fund.
  • Launched the Lead Safe Resource Center and Home Loans and Grants:
    • After a nationwide search, the Coalition selected CHN Housing Partners (CHN) and Environmental Health Watch (EHW) as the LSHF Administrators.
    • CHN is managing property owner loans, grants, and incentives. EHW has established the Lead Safe Resource Center located at 4600 Euclid Avenue – a one-stop-shop for education, community outreach, lead safe certification system navigation, and workforce development.
    • With ongoing landlord input, the Coalition crafted new loan, grant, and incentive products and launched an application for landlords seeking financial assistance.
    • The Workforce Development Advisory Group, led by the Urban League of Greater Cleveland, helped the Resource Center build and maintain the lead safe workforce and served as a sounding board and referral network for lead safety workers.
    • The Lead Safe Resource Center hosted 20 workforce trainings in its newly established training facility.
    • The Coalition, led by the Community Action Team, canvassed in every Cleveland neighborhood while adhering to COVID-19 safety guidelines to spread the word about lead poisoning prevention.
    • The Coalition launched the Lead Safe Hotline, 833-601-5323 (LEAD)

Cleveland’s public-and private-sector leaders joined together to form the Coalition to take the kinds of actions described above. With over 320 members representing more than 100 cross-sector organizations, the Coalition’s mission is to protect children and families from lead exposure.

The Coalition has cited its aims as:

to protect Cleveland’s children by merging practical public policies; knowledgeable agencies willing to collaborate and adapt; proven community programs and leadership; and public and private sector resources rooted in mutual accountability.

I am proud to be part of the group that helped to create this Coalition. Councilman Griffin and I, and the Mayor’s administration, and our numerous partners will not stop until we reach our goal of eliminating lead hazards and thereby better protecting the health of our children.