Children living in more than two dozen Toledo homes with orders to vacate because of lead hazards should get new blood tests, Toledo Councilman Peter Ujvagi said Monday.
His comments followed a report in The Blade on Sunday showing more than half of local homes on a state-issued list remain occupied and many occupants are unaware of the orders.
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“It’s not acceptable,” he said. “I don’t know how many orders were actually followed through on [by the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department], but the fact that there are people living in these houses with children when there’s documentation that the house should be abated is simply unacceptable.”
The Ohio Department of Health this month published a list of 540 properties across the state with orders to vacate based on property owners’ failure to comply with remediation after a child living there tested high for lead. Of such properties in Toledo, more than half currently are occupied, The Blade found.
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Mr. Ujvagi said the city needs to take an active role in making sure lead laws — both the state orders and the city’s lead-safe rental law — are followed.
“It was my mistake to assume that the laws were in place under the abatement requirements and they were being followed up on,” he said.
Health Commissioner Eric Zgodzinski said his department found “a lot of flaws in the entire process” in the way it handled homes with vacate orders, but he said state laws regarding lead abatement also are lacking.
Local health department officials investigating homes after a child has been poisoned can order various improvements to fix lead hazards; it’s up to property owners to make the repairs and schedule follow-up inspections.
If property owners don’t comply, the health department is supposed to put a placard on homes’ exteriors with the vacate orders.
“[The Ohio Department of Health’s] way of looking at lead, there are not the teeth that need to be in it,” Mr. Zgodzinski said. He also pointed to landlords’ role in compliance, as health department officials contact property owners when there are vacate orders.
“It does come back to, if it was posted the landlord should have the responsibility to say, ‘Hey you are living in an environment with lead,’” he said. “That’s the flaw in the whole thing, making sure landlords are doing what they need to do. That’s what we’re forgetting; the landlord has a responsibility before people are living in there.”
Power to prosecute
George Thomas, an attorney with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality who specializes in housing law, said the health department “undoubtedly” has the ability to prosecute landlords who don’t comply with orders and referred to the state’s public-health lead-investigation manual, which reads in part:
“If the director or a delegated board of health determines from follow-up activities that the property has not been vacated, the director may refer the case to the state’s attorney general’s office for civil action or to the county prosecutor’s office for criminal action. A delegated board of health may refer the case to their local law enforcement agent for criminal action or to ODH for civil action.”
Mr. Thomas said he met with health department officials last year to discuss concerns about inadequate follow-up with noncompliant landlords.
“I have tried to explain that they have that power,” he said. “I’m not sure where that confusion comes from.”
Mr. Zgodzinski said since the state published the list, each of the homes in Toledo has been visited again, and procedural updates are planned to fix what he called a “communication breakdown.”
In discussions with environmental health director Dave Welch “a couple weeks ago,” Mr. Zgodzinski said he was briefed on the current situation.
“What I heard was there were some people who were living in those houses. I don’t know if we knew how many or the time frame,” he said.
Among policy changes being discussed, Mr. Zgodzinski said, is increasing how often health officials return to sites to check and, if needed, repost vacate placards; increasing information to tenants, and issuing orders from the board of health to vacate which he said would carry more weight.
Health department officials on Monday also confirmed two addresses included on the list were actually in compliance and did not have active vacate orders.
Rita Kuetemeyer has documentation showing necessary repairs had been made at her rental property at 536 Woodsdale Ave.
Ms. Kuetemeyer’s copies of health department records regarding the property show a risk assessment was done in February, 2016, and the required repairs were made. On May, 27, 2016, the health department issued a notice of compliance informing her “that the lead hazards identified in the lead hazard control order have been sufficiently controlled” and the vacate order was lifted.
She thought that settled it. Then in December, she received a notice of noncompliance and an order to vacate the same property, stating the health department had not received notice that repairs had been made.
When she inquired, Ms. Kuetemeyer was told it was the department’s mistake and to shred the document, she said. Despite a follow-up letter acknowledging the noncompliance letter was sent in error, the Woodsdale address appeared on a list of noncompliant properties sent to the Ohio Department of Health and published.
“I just wish they would do their job,” she said. “If I need to spend $700 to remediate, they can click whatever box to take the address off the list.”
The inclusion of compliant addresses lumps in landlords who are working to improve their properties with those who neglect theirs, she said.
Another home, at 712 Ewing St. owned by Calvin Banks, Jr., received a notice of compliance after the list was generated March 22, said Shannon Lands, a health department spokesman.
Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson said she is confident the health department “will do what is necessary” to implement Toledo’s lead-safe law and work with Toledoans living in homes with an order to vacate.
“I have been assured by the [health commissioner] and the board that they understand how important this is … and so it is my expectation that they will do what is necessary to reduce incidences of lead poisoning and that we have a way to help get folks in compliance,” she said.
Mayor Hicks-Hudson said city and health department officials need to “do a better job of educating” people about the lead law and tenants’ rights.
“From city government perspective, we need to work with property owners to get their properties up to code,” the mayor said. “We have to get people in safe housing. … We are going to work with our inspectors as well as the health department to follow up and help folks if they need other housing and to help them connect with resources that can get them there.”
Anna Mills, president of the Toledo Real Estate Investors’ Association, said she wants accountability from the health department to follow through on orders against negligent landlords.
Already a vocal opponent of Toledo’s lead-safe rental law, she said news that many vacate-order properties remain occupied does not breed confidence that the health department can handle the rental law’s much bigger scope.
“How are they going to take care of tens of thousands of houses when they can’t take care of the 27 they’ve got?” she said. “They’re just going to make it a bigger mess for the bad ones to get lost in the melee. They need to be taking care of the problem. … If you’ve got bad houses, go after the bad houses.”
Staff writer Ignazio Messina contributed to this report.
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