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Confusion and panic as Toledo tenants fear ousting for lead law

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    Brittany says she's trying to find a new home that's affordable for herself, her cat, and her dog, but it's tough to find something in her price range that is certified lead safe.

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    Old West End homeowner Melissa Prior discusses her concerns that Toledo's lead law has added to the housing insecurity of renters in her neighborhood.

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    "This is a crisis. This is 30 days and I don't know where my life is going to be," Brittany Adams said after receiving notice her month-to-month lease would be terminated at the end of June.

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    Brittany Adams and other residents in the Old West End say Toledo's lead ordinance has had the unintended consequence of displacing residents, as landlords choose not to renew their tenant's leases rather than face the fines associated with violation of the law's required registration and lead dust wipe test.

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    Brittany Adams received notice that her month-to-month lease would be terminated at the end of June.

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    Laura Shaffer holds a notice left on the door of a market-rate, month-to-month tenant giving them 30 days notice to vacate as she and a dozen other residents of the Old West End prepare to attend the May 31st Toledo City Council meeting of the Neighborhoods, Community Development and Health Committee at One Government Center in downtown Toledo.

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    Laura Shaffer, center, addresses members of the media as she and a dozen other residents of the Old West End prepare to attend the May 31st Toledo City Council meeting of the Neighborhoods, Community Development and Health Committee at One Government Center in downtown Toledo.

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    lead03p"This is a crisis. This is 30 days and I don't know where my life is going to be," Brittany Adams said after receiving notice her month-to-month lease would be terminated at the end of June. Ms. Adams and other residents in the Old West End say Toledo's lead ordinance has had the unintended consequence of displacing residents and adding to vacant housing in the neighborhood as landlords choose not to renew their tenant's leases rather than face the fines associated with violation of the law's required registration and lead dust wipe test. Brittany says she's trying to find a new home that's affordable for herself, her cat, and her dog, but it's tough to find something in her price range that is certified lead safe. She is also concerned about neighbors who are in even more vulnerable positions than she is. THE BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH

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    Old West End homeowner Melissa Prior is concerned that Toledo's lead law has added to the housing insecurity of renters in her neighborhood. She says several of her neighbors who rent have faced threats of eviction because their landlords are unwilling or unable to comply with lead ordinance deadlines.

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Brittany Adams describes a “roller coaster of emotions” in the days since Thursday when she learned from her landlord she would have to leave her apartment at the end of June.

Fear, anger, and confusion top the list as the 30-year-old Old West End resident searches for alternative living arrangements while trying to avoid taking money from friends or moving into her parents’ garage. 

“It was never supposed to make anyone homeless but council did not take into account renters’ affairs,” she said. “There are no safeguards for us, no recourse for us, especially us month-to-month renters. We have no power in this situation.”

Ms. Adams, an artist and general manager at a retail shop, joins many in a similar situation as landlords unwilling or unable to meet the requirements of Toledo’s controversial lead-safe rental ordinance terminate their tenancy agreements. 

“The way that the law squeezes small landlords is then having an effect on us renters, who really are the people who the ordinance is supposed to be protecting,” Ms. Adams said.

VIDEO: Brittany Adams anxieties over new lead law

She said those with less financial resources, community connections, or who are in disadvantaged communities will bear even more of the burdens. 

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Laura Shaffer, center, addresses members of the media as she and a dozen other residents of the Old West End prepare to attend the May 31st Toledo City Council meeting of the Neighborhoods, Community Development and Health Committee at One Government Center in downtown Toledo.

The Blade/Katie Rausch
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Among the most vocal are residents of the Old West End such as Laura Shaffer, 29, who organized a group of residents to attend a city council committee meeting Thursday to decry “unintended consequences” of the ordinance that threatened to displace residents. 

At that meeting confusion reigned as council members, city officials, and residents questioned the specific terms of the law and the protections it affords tenants.

And despite comments from council members and lawyers pledging assistance, it remains unclear how many tenants will be successful in staying in their homes or seeking other legal recourse. 

Proponents of the law, which requires rental properties with one to four units built before 1978 and day care centers to be inspected for lead hazards, argue the ordinance offers some protections for tenants against landlord retaliation, though that didn’t quell the fears of those who have received notice to leave. 

About 1,200 properties of the estimated 12,500 required to be registered by June 30 have done so, according to health department records. 

Toledo’s lead-safe rental ordinance makes it unlawful for owners or their associates to retaliate against a tenant who “reports a failure of the Owner to obtain a Lead-Safe Certificate, or who reports suspected lead-based paint hazard to the Owner or to the City, or reports other issues suggesting non-compliance” with the law. 

“Retaliatory actions include, but are not limited to any actions that materially alter the terms of the tenancy (including unsupported rent increases and non-renewals) or interfere with the occupants' use of the property,” the law states. 

Many who attended the meeting said they faced leaving properties they rented month-to-month.

Ms. Shaffer said she and her partner had already found new accommodations elsewhere in the city after scrambling to come up with the funding to do so though she said not everyone forced from their residences will be so fortunate.

“Some of them will probably be moving in with friends temporarily, with family in the area,” she said. “I know people who have offered a spare bedroom. I do know that a lot of them are having a hard time securing the necessary funds to find a new place.”

She and others at Thursday’s meeting implored council members to take emergency action to prevent displacement of residents, which they said would disrupt neighborhoods and threaten already tenuous financial situations of low- and middle-income renters. 

“The bottom line is there is so much uncertainty right now,” Ms. Shaffer said. “If you’re a low-income person, you can’t live with uncertainty. You don’t have the financial padding to make a last-minute decision.”

Bob Cole, managing attorney with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, said landlords making a business decision to end a tenancy agreement like month-to-month rentals can do so without reason, but said tenants may have recourse if there is evidence it is done in retaliation. 

“If I am a tenant on month to month, and I call the health department to say I am concerned that my landlord is not going to comply ... and the next thing you know you get a notice to vacate, that is not legal,” he said.

“We want to support tenants,” he said, adding that ABLE will offer community meetings and other avenues to hear tenant concerns. “We will see if we feel that the actions are discriminatory and is retaliation for tenants trying to exercise their right to safe and healthy housing.”

Michael Marsh, president and chief executive officer of Toledo’s Fair Housing Center, said landlord-tenant disputes don’t typically fall under violations of the Fair Housing Act, unless there are cases in which landlords are discriminating against a protected class of people, such as refusing to rent to families with children.

Toledo’s law department declined to answer specific questions on tenant protections outlined in the law.           

"The city's role is to enforce the ordinance against those landlords who are not in compliance," city attorney Joe McNamara said. "A tenant would have to pursue his or her own remedies. The City of Toledo opposes retaliation by landlords."

Melissa Prior, who has lived in the Old West End for eight years and now owns a house there, said she twice wrote to city council members voicing her concerns about mass displacement of her neighbors. 

VIDEO: Melissa Prior on Toledo’s lead law

Ms. Prior, 34, a teacher at Toledo School for the Arts, said though her household is not directly affected by the law, she worries what it will do for her predominantly tenant-occupied block. Many with month-to-month leases are getting notices to be out by the end of June.

“I’m concerned that there is going to be the crime there was eight years ago when we moved into a kind of empty block,” she said. “Cars were broken into constantly and because we’ve all had a presence and we make ourselves known, we haven’t had that anymore.”

She worries about the value of her home and others if they are suddenly surrounded again by vacancies, but said she’s not opposed to a law to strengthen lead standards. 

“Being a teacher for the last 12 years, I’ve taught kids with disabilities, kids specifically with lead poisoning and this is something that is incredibly important,” she said. “I know it’s an expensive process, but it shouldn’t mean that we are kicking out neighbors,” she said. 

Contact Lauren Lindstrom at llindstrom@theblade.com, 419-724-6154, or on Twitter @lelindstrom.

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