First in a two-part series
CLEVELAND — When Angela Williams’ daughter Angelina was a year old, a pediatric check-up revealed the child’s blood lead levels were elevated.
The number went down about four months later, Ms. Williams said, but it was unsettling news, for Angelina, now 3, Ms. Williams’ son Amari, 6, and two older children ages 12 and 16.
“It was very surprising, it had me testing my other three kids,” she said. “It was kind of shocking.” None of her other children had elevated levels, she said. The family moved to the century-old Lakewood home in May, 2014, Ms. Williams said.
But records show that county health officials were first notified of lead hazards at the home in 2011, when a child living there was found to have blood lead levels high enough to trigger an investigation by the Cuyahoga County board of health.
Angelina was not the first child living in that house to be poisoned by lead.
The Lakewood residence was just one of more than 500 addresses on a list released by the Ohio Department of Health in May with orders to vacate due to untreated lead hazards. In each of these homes, at least one child had been poisoned and property owners have not submitted evidence that the required improvements have been made.
Blade reports in May found more than half of the more than two dozen homes in Lucas County were occupied, and many of those residents said they had not been informed by their landlords or the health department that there were orders to vacate. The health department acknowledged it was not actively checking to ensure the homes were vacant. The Blade traveled to Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati to compare the situations there with Toledo’s.
In August, Blade journalists used the most recent list published by the state health department and visited every house in Cuyahoga, Hamilton, and Franklin counties — which contain the homes in Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus and their suburbs. Those counties had the most properties on the state list, with about 210 properties among them.
In each of these homes, a child has been lead-poisoned, local health departments investigated the properties and ordered improvements and upgrades. And, owners of each of these homes have not complied, resulting in notices of noncompliance or orders to vacate.
“No person should be living in these properties until the identified lead hazards have been corrected,” said the Ohio Department of Health in statement accompanying the list of properties across the state.
After the state health department published the full list, many health departments went back out to check on the houses, some of which have been lingering in their systems without resolution for years.
At each house, there should be a placard placed by the respective health department warning of the health risks and vacate orders.
When knocking on each door, Blade journalists determined if a home was vacant, likely vacant, unknown, likely occupied, or occupied. For properties where no one answered the door, observations such as a running air conditioning unit, pets inside, or children’s items outside helped inform a designation, as did talking to neighbors.
The Blade also noted if there was a visible sign warning of the lead hazards that is required to be in place until the house is in compliance. Occupation rates varied from city to city, as well as by the agency tasked with ensuring the homes are cleared.
A Blade review found 52 percent of properties handled by the Cleveland department of health to be occupied or likely occupied, compared with 42 percent of those handled by Columbus public health.
Cincinnati had the highest percentage of properties that were vacant or appeared vacant, in compliance with the vacate orders, though many remained on the list because owners had not yet done required improvements. Twenty-six percent of homes handled by Cincinnati public health were occupied or likely occupied, while 70 percent were vacant or likely vacant.
For homes in suburban Cleveland handled by Cuyahoga County board of health, 46 percent of homes were occupied or likely occupied.
Since August, roughly 30 houses, or about 15 percent of the 210 visited by The Blade have been cleared — leaving another 85 percent out of compliance.
People owning or living in the properties expressed several key frustrations with the law and the response to it.
Landlords can easily re-rent properties after complying with the initial vacate order. Likewise, it is easy for owners to drop properties and sell them to an unsuspecting buyer never disclosing known lead hazards.
Ms. Williams, of Lakewood, said lead was just one of the environmental concerns she had about the double family home, which was built in 1911. Water damage and possible mold drove them out first, she said, but she also never got notice from her landlord about vacate orders. She already had plans to be gone within the next six months when Blade reporters spoke to her in August.
“All he wants to do is collect rent every month,” she said of the landlord. “This house, it really needs a lot of renovations. It’s a beautiful house; we don’t want to move, but we’re forced to move.”
When reached by phone in October, Ali Lotfi-Fard, who is listed in Cuyahoga County property records and in the risk assessment as the owner, refused to answer questions about why he continued to rent out the property after orders to vacate were sent in 2013, but said the property was not currently occupied.
“I’m not going to answer any questions, OK?” he said before hanging up.
Ms. Williams said in a follow-up interview in October that they had moved from the house and were staying with family until they found a new place.
According to county health department records, a child in 2011 had a blood lead level of 14 micrograms per deciliter, several points higher than the threshold of 10 that triggers an investigation, according to state law. More information about this child’s health or whereabouts are not public due to patient-protection laws.
Lead poisoning can cause damage to a child’s brain and nervous system, slow growth and development, create learning and behavior problems, and hearing and speech problems, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Many of the properties had the telltale visible signs of lead hazards — chipped or peeling paint, original wood window frames and sashes, and ample dust buildup. Lead paint, which the federal government banned for residential use in 1978, is a primary source of lead poisoning in children.
Stories about incomplete or withheld information about subsequent lead investigations and orders were common, according to interviews with people living in properties on the state list.
Daniel Sinclair, 24, sat on the porch next door to the Columbus house where he and his mother lived for six months until they left due to the lead orders.
“We just moved out yesterday, and I saw them put the sign up this morning, I guess they are trying to go ahead and ignore that,” he said in early August, gesturing to a large red “For Rent” sign.
The name on the sign matched that of Alesia Jordan-McMillan, who is listed as an owner in county records. Messages asking if the property was still for rent left for the number on the sign were not returned. The home remains on the list of noncompliant properties.
Questions from The Blade caused some who are not on the list to wonder about the safety of their own residences.
“They didn’t list downstairs as one of the units?” wondered Thomas Freeman, who answered the door at his Cleveland rental in the lower half of a home built in 1915. The upstairs apartment was on the state’s list order to vacate left, but the tenants weren’t home at the time.
They weren’t the same renters as those with the child who had elevated levels, Mr. Freeman said. He worries for his daughters Malina and Maya, ages 4 and 3.
“They told me to get my kids tested and I did,” he said. One had elevated levels that has “since come down,” he said.
State records show the upper unit has orders to vacate but not the lower unit. The property remains on the state’s list for noncompliance.
Photographer Katie Rausch and staff writer Sarah Elms contributed to this report.
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