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Cleveland voluntary rental inspection program turns up few violations, lead hazards in first year

September 4, 2018

Cleveland voluntary rental inspection program turns up few violations, lead hazards in first year

CLEVELAND, Ohio – A city unit created last year to inspect rental properties has completed initial inspections of about 8,000 units across the city, according to Building and Housing Director Ayonna Blue Donald.

A Plain Dealer analysis of the first 3,200 inspections conducted found that more than 95 percent of the rental inspections turned up no violations. This is likely because the city has limited the pool of rentals for its first round of inspections to landlords who voluntarily register with the city annually as part of its Rental Registry.

“I think that’s been our biggest hurdle so far in implementing the rental inspection, because of course most of the inspections that are occurring are people that are saying  ’yes, I want you to inspect my property,” Donald told council members of the Development, Planning & Sustainability committee Tuesday.

Donald’s full presentation is below.

“Those properties tend to be the better set because those are people that are complying, and they want to comply,” she said.

Inspections new

The inspections, which started last July and ramped up in October as the city hired additional inspectors with money from a taxpayer-approved income tax increase, are aimed at improving the city’s stock of rental housing.

See map on a mobile phone here.

The 12-person unit has issued relatively few housing violations after inspecting rental homes to ensure they have running water, smoke detectors, working toilets and safe electrical connections and that homes constructed prior to 1978 do not have peeling exterior or interior paint that could pose a lead poisoning hazard for children.

Building and Housing officials said “the program is still new and right now they are in the “carrot” of a “carrot and stick” approach.

Lead poisoning

Last year, city officials, who have been pressed to come up with more proactive measure to protect children from lead exposure, said it would test dust in 25 percent of inspected homes constructed prior to 1978 to determine whether hazardous levels of lead exists.

According to the city’s presentation to city council Tuesday, it has conducted the tests in closer to 10 percent of inspected homes since inspections started in 2017.

Donald said that number is low because the city started with only one inspector certified to conduct those tests but now has added several more and hopes to proactively test for lead in 1,000 units this year.

Last year, the city said the inspections would focus the lead dust tests in areas of the city where data showed that children were more likely to be poisoned.

Tuesday, Donald said the city is collecting those samples randomly and not targeting “hot spot” areas.

Of the 773 tested units, about 5 percent had hazardous levels of lead.

34 had violations for lead hazards;15 properties were cleared of hazards based on private inspections;11 appeals were filed over the violations.

“I did not expect it to be so low,” Donald said, even based on voluntary compliance, though those that have tested high have had a high rate of bringing the properties into compliance.Donald said that the unit is still just a year old its work will evolve from the data collected and what’s learned from the inspections conducted.

It will take, based on the inspection rate thus far, about 6 ½ years to conduct a first round of initial inspections.

After that, Donald said the city will “explore other methods of entry into properties.“That could include getting search warrants, she said, but that would likely involve specific knowledge of a problem because of the high legal standard for entering an occupied property without permission.

Donald Tuesday said violations or prosecutions were initiated for a total of 92 code violations in 2018. In 2017, which was a partial year of inspections, about 90 violation notices were issued, according to city data.

The guidelines the city is using for inspections somewhat mirror the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “Healthy Homes” standards for public housing.City officials also have said, at this point, they are only inspecting homes and apartments where the property owner or tenant consent to the inspection making the process pretty much voluntary, unless there is a complaint from a tenant or neighborhood Community Development Corporation with information about a specific violation.

Coucilman Tony Brancatelli asked how many property owners have declined to allow the city to inspect their rentals.

Donald said she didn’t have an exact percentage but could provide it to council in an update.

The city has boosted the number of units on its Rental Registry since 2015, when The Plain Dealer pointed as part of its Toxic Neglect series on lead poisoning that only a little over a third of the estimated number of city rental units were registered with the city.

Today that number has climbed to nearly 53,000 registered units, or about 57 percent of the estimated units.

The city has worked to get more units registered using utility bill information, by collaborating with the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority and by working with city council to pass legislation making it a ticketable offense not to register, which allows for enforcement without a costly prosecution.

The city also has gotten help from housing court, which handles evictions and has leverage over landlords who seek to file them.

The court last year changed its rules to require landlords to be properly registered with the city before filing an eviction, according to Housing Court Judge Ron O’Leary, who also directed Building and Housing Department when the Rental Inspection unit was conceived.

O’Leary told The Plain Dealer he also is making the registration and scheduling of a rental inspection a required condition for landlords who are on probation with the court.

The court couldn’t provide statistics on how often that has happened but said it is putting a system in place to track it.See the presentation on mobile here.

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