By Amanda R. Howland
I submitted this account to C.L.A.S.H. (Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing) in the summer of 2019. I was hoping our story would help in some small way break the stigma around lead exposure and other housing problems that lower-income families face. As long as people are ashamed to talk about struggles with housing, wages, discrimination and health care these problems will remain invisible and too many middle-income people will be conned into siding with the rich. The time has come to side with the poor.
At some point in my life, I heard that there was no need to worry about lead poisoning because it only happens when children “eat paint chips”. Thus, it only happens to the other, because, what kind of parent would let their child eat paint chips, right?
I want to tell our family’s story about lead exposure and also how hard it was to ultimately find a safe home to raise our child. I want to tell this story in detail not to generate pity, but to show the many obstacles lower-income families have in finding safe housing. My hope is that people who have not experienced this firsthand will come to understand that the problem does not stem from the choices of lower-income families but rather from decisions made by exploitive, uneducated and underprepared landlords and governments at all levels ignoring this most important aspect of infrastructure and health.
When my husband and I moved in together, we knew we wanted to have a child within the next few years. We rented the first floor of a Lakewood double that was freshly painted white and had old windows. Our landlord gave us the same printout I’d received from previous landlords explaining that because the house was built before 1978, there was lead paint underneath newer paint. Again, I didn’t worry because of the decades of new paint, and because we would never let our baby “eat paint chips.”
We loved the place. It was spacious and affordable and the landlord seemed to care for the house and had maintained it well in many ways. He had not painted over the natural woodwork. He’d built a new bathroom. Later, he even replaced the old basement windows with glass block. There was a tiny yard with a big pine tree. We were newly in love, and we loved our first home together.
We had our daughter in 2013, and while I’d felt peaceful and prepared during the third trimester, the sleep deprivation after her birth flipped a switch in me, and I experienced post-partum anxiety that was unlike any anxiety I had never known.
I was terrified of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), and Google searches revealed that everything caused SIDS. My daughter cried all the time. She cried unless I held her, but it was my understanding that it was not safe to sleep with her. So I didn’t sleep.
During my anxiety-fueled “research” binges, I came across the issue of lead exposure, and I decided to add it to the long list of things to ask about at our next pediatrician visit. While the home had been recently painted when we first moved in, it was now starting to chip. The doctor said it could be a concern since we lived in a 1920’s house. There are so many old rental doubles in Lakewood, no doubt she’d seen exposure before. It was standard to test by finger prick at age one, but I wanted to prevent exposure.
She put me in touch with an agency (I’m pretty sure it was the Cuyahoga County Board of Health) and provided her recommendation for them that we have our home inspected for lead. I made a series of phone calls to the agency connecting them to the pediatrician’s office that I don’t totally recall. I do know that at that time, they only inspected on doctor’s recommendations, usually after a child has tested with elevated levels. (We also were in touch with Lakewood Alive at this time, and they were really helpful, supportive and resourceful throughout this entire process.)
The agency came and did an inspection and found lead dust in several places, including the windowsill in our daughter’s bedroom (fortunately she was still sleeping in a pack-n-play in our room at the time) and in the shared hallway outside our back door that led to the basement and outside. This was the area with the most lead because of a back second-floor balcony that was falling down covered in chipping paint that contaminated the yard, the driveway and this common rear entryway/stairwell.
The agency gave us instructions on how to keep surfaces free from lead dust. They taught us that exposure to lead dust leads to elevated levels of lead in children, and so my bigoted but comforting idea about paint chips was shattered. They said we could rent a HEPA vacuum from a place in Parma that would help in the rear entryway/stairwell. They also told us about a program that we could apply for that would give our landlord thousands of dollars toward lead abatement. (I just threw out all the records of this last year, so unfortunately I don’t have the exact value of the grant or its name—I believe it was for $10,000, and it was likely the Lead Safe Program.)
We were struggling. My husband was working long hours, often six days a week, doing the shopping by himself and cooking dinner, all to keep us going. I was still awake nearly around the clock with our daughter. Once, my knees buckled and I almost dropped her. I was so sleep deprived and anxious that I suffered from invasive thoughts and my emotional range was trapped between fear and sadness with only rare but bright bursts of intense joy. Love was the deeper feeling that held me together.
I mopped daily. I wiped down the windowsills with paper towels and took them directly out to the trash. We always removed our shoes upon entering and asked guests to do likewise.
We jumped through many hoops getting the paperwork together. (I’ve always been grateful for government programs, and I understand that it is those who would like to defund them who set them up in such a way as to discourage people from applying.) The application process required many personal documents and forms, and then asking our landlord to also produce documents and fill out forms. Approaching him was a little intimidating because I wanted to have a good relationship with him and hated to ask him for anything.
He was a little skeptical. He said that years before he’d HEPA-vacuumed the back entryway/stairwell, and the kids who lived here at that time tested with elevated levels anyway. (This was scary, but I still had the arrogant idea that they must not have been keeping the place as clean as we were.) The landlord seemed to think lead exposure was inevitable, and that lead abatement was a waste of time and money, even with the subsidy. But he went along with the application process anyway.
We did everything we could. We continued to mop daily, leave our shoes in the back hallway and wipe down the windowsills. We didn’t open the windows the rest of the time we lived there, even though there was no air conditioning beyond window units in our bedrooms, so the kitchen, dining and living rooms were stiflingly hot and muggy during summer months. We never played in the back or front yard because the grass was contaminated with paint chips and dust.
About six months later in spring we were approved. I was so happy and excited about what this would mean for the safety of our little family’s home. New windows and siding on the house? In the meantime, the landlord painted the front porch, which at least helped seal someof the pealing paint.
We had a beautiful porch, but we never took her out there before he painted it, and now we could. Things were looking up.
Then, at her one-year check-up that August, our daughter tested 9 mcg/dL on her finger-prick lead test, indicating problematic lead exposure. (Results of 10 mcg/dL or higher are considered dangerous, and there could be some problems from levels higher than 5 mcg/dL.)
I was just beginning to get some sleep and feel some measure of safety and security for our family.
I called the landlord, angry because he had access to the grant, and yet he hadn’t started any abatement. We’d done all we could do on our end, and our child tested high anyway.
He got testy with me for the first time, basically repeating his earlier opinion that some lead exposure was inevitable and not a big deal, and that even with the subsidy, it would cost him too much money. He said that he would take some measures to reduce the lead, including removing the back balcony and painting the house.
Three months later, he still hadn’t done anything. Our daughter started to walk. Her intravenous blood test was slightly lower than the finger prick test, and we were told an iron-rich diet would help pull the lead from her body, so we continued keeping the apartment as clean as possible and feeding her an iron supplement and plenty of iron-rich beans.
While we were on our way to our daughter’s fifteen-month checkup, my husband texted our landlord that he wanted in writing that abatement would begin. Our landlord texted him back that we had thirty days to leave.
It was the first snowfall. My husband usually had to work during office visits, and we had been excited to be together with the pediatrician and show her that our daughter was walking, but now we were shaking with fear and anger.
We knew our rights. We were on a month-to-month lease, but it said clearly in the paperwork that the landlord could not evict us because for applying for the abatement grant or during a certain period of time after.
When we got home I took some deep breaths and called him. I tried to approach him as a gentle concerned mother, hoping that empathy for me would help smooth things over. He immediately started screaming at me that we were playing a dirty trick trying to get things in writing, and that we were setting him up, and that the abatement would cost tens of thousands more than the grant and that he wouldn’t do it.
Our landlord then said that if we really wanted to keep our child safe from being poisoned by lead, we should move to a farther out suburb like North Olmsted.
I was shaken. I hadn’t been yelled at like that in many years. I was used to dealing with people on friendly professional terms. The content as well as the tone was humiliating.
My husband took the phone and told our landlord firmly that we were excellent tenants, that we had always paid rent early, that we were quiet, that we’d tended a garden and made the place better than we’d found it.
My husband’s conviction calmed down the landlord, and he apologized for threatening eviction. Maybe it was easier to yell at a crying mother than an angry father. He said he would HEPA vacuum the rear entryway/stairwell, paint the house and tear down the outside back stairs and balcony, which, again, was the largest source of the pealing paint and was falling apart anyway.
It took me a while to shake the trauma of being yelled at, of being threatened with the loss of our home on the first snowfall with my newly walking daughter tumbling about with wispy hair and a hopeful smile.
Our daughter’s lead levels eventually went down as she grew. We loved our home and were pacified by the hope of new paint and the removal of the back balcony.
Lakewood Alive was helpful throughout this experience. I talked several times with a woman who was a passionate advocate for renters. She never wavered in her conviction that we had a right to a safe home for our child. She gave us advice about how to stay safe when our landlord eventually had the house painted.
He hired a neighbor who was a professional painter. The woman from Lakewood Alive had said they needed to use a tarp to keep the grass and soil safe from the lead chips. The man didn’t use a tarp and paint chips were everywhere. I don’t want to insult my neighbor, but I carefully approached him and mentioned the tarp and suggested he wear a mask to keep himself safe from lead. He told me that there was no lead paint because it had been banned in 1978. I have to admit, I was a little shocked that this professional didn’t know that lead paint remained underneath the newer paint and was presently exposed. I told him that our daughter had tested for elevated lead levels.
The landlord never did tear down or paint the back stairs and balcony that were collapsing and covered in chipping paint.
The double had an unusually nice dry basement, and when our daughter was two-and-a-half, we were planning on hosting a play group, so I wanted to set up a play area down there. I noticed the basement stairs had chipping paint, so I painted them, but I was frustrated and concerned because I knew I wasn’t totally doing it right. I hated the thought of any of the little children being exposed to lead paint dust. For some reason, that was the day we finally got fed up and decided to move.
This was in 2016. Our rent was $575 a month, and when we’d moved there in 2011, most doubles were going for $650. By 2016, the rents had gone up hundreds of dollars. The lowest we could find was $850, and these doubles also had old windows and paint rather than siding. To get siding and/or new windows, you had to pay $950 or more. (Plus electricity and heat that could add hundreds more in the winter.)
Eventually we found a place in downtown Lakewood for $750 a month. The location was wonderful as the library and grocery stores were a short walk away. The building was old and not in great shape, but it had siding and a new window in the child’s room and a nice yard.
Ultimately, we only stayed there 18 months because despite the lower lead risk, the building was maintained much more poorly than our first place. There were rodents in the basement, old dangerous electrical wiring and most repairs we had to pay for ourselves with a credit card. (I called various Lakewood government agencies to figure out when the electricity had last been inspected and was told that there was no record of this house being inspected—that inspections were done randomly, and the rental had probably not been inspected since the landlord purchased the building in the 1980’s.)
The spaces underneath both sinks were damaged and unusable. The home was not secure; for example, a basement door to the outside was held shut with an old broom. We saw a rat in the basement and hired an exterminator company that said there wasn’t much they could do if the landlord was unwilling to seal the multiple entry points. He was not, nor was he interested in reimbursing us for the exterminator fees. He just said, “thanks!” We were glad our two cats seemed to keep any mice and rats from entering our unit. The landlord took responsibility for nothing.
Once I called because the lights in the bathroom were flickering. The landlord sent over his regular maintenance man who just stared at the lights for an hour and left. Our landlord liked him because he would always underplay the situation and repair things as cheaply as possible. For example, the toilet repeatedly broke, and he would just fix it by bending the metal in the tank.
The final straw came when we discovered a heating duct was torn right below the main vent and loose asbestos was likely coming into our home.
(The house had an ancient gravity furnace and this vent was actually the only one that seemed to work, so gas was costing hundreds of dollars each month and on very cold nights we still had to all sleep together under piles of blankets and still we shivered so much we barely slept.)
We called a repair company who sent a man to inspect who told us this was dangerous and needed immediate repair. We told the landlord and told him we would pay for the repair. We were willing to max out our credit card.
The landlord came over enraged, ostensibly because the repair company was trying to “con” us. He said the duct had been torn for years. He “repaired” the duct himself by applying knockoff duct tape while asbestos fell on his head. The tape fell off within 24 hours.
The repairman had sealed the metal heating vent with (real) duct tape, and we left it on all weekend. It was so cold that we were actually concerned about hypothermia. We didn’t know what to do.
On Monday we called the local EPA who said the duct should be replaced, but that since the actual tear had happened a long time ago, we were probably safe for the time being. The landlord not only completely refused to pay for the necessary repair, which would have cost less than $1,000, but refused to allow us to pay for the repair.
We began looking for another place to live.
By the end of winter, we found a beautiful, well-maintained 1920’s apartment with new windows. We are so grateful to the friendly and competent maintenance crew whenever they come to fix a leaky faucet.
We are happy and plan on staying here. But there is a cost, and not everyone in our situation would have been able to make this move. Residents must have good credit scores, and the rent is nearly $900 a month: three hundred dollars more than we were paying three years ago. And other similar units are going for more like $1100 and $1200 a month. We moved at just the right time before rents really started to go up.
We love this apartment, but we miss having a yard and a porch and a basement like we did in our doubles. Those are nice to have when you have a child. But, we had to prioritize her safety. Our housing cost has gone up much more than our income, so we are living paycheck to paycheck, and often have to use our credit card between paycheck to pick up groceries.
We lived five years in the double where my daughter was exposed to lead, and the rent wasn’t raised once. The policy of this apartment is to raise the rent a minimum of three percent each year. We hope there will not be a large rent increase because we’d hate to have to leave this home, too. (Update: fortunately, they only raised the rent 3% this year, even though other similar apartments’ rents keep rising.) People shouldn’t have to choose between safety and affordability. Some people don’t even have the choice.
Sometimes friends say, “My mortgage is less than your rent! Why don’t you just buy a house?” But when you add insurance, water and taxes, the monthly payment is still more, and we can’t afford to pay any more, and then there is the down payment, which we can’t even imagine having on hand.
We like having a simple life. We would rather have time to be together and do work that is meaningful to us than have extra money to go to restaurants or travel. But safe housing, like health care, is not a luxury. It is a right.
After we left our first double, a family who’d lived there before us moved back in, the same family whose children our landlord had mentioned had tested with high lead levels years before. They had a new baby. Like our landlord, they must have accepted that elevated lead is part of urban life. There was also a new baby in the other unit of the second double we’d left. The unit was shared by a sweet, large family who worked together to keep things going despite many struggles. We told them about the asbestos, which at that time was not affecting their unit, but there were still rodents in the basement and unsafe electrical wiring.
It’s my understanding that doubles were built at the turn of the last century as part of a social movement motivated to create better living conditions for factory workers. Activists and reformers wanted to get families out of the tenements and into places where people had some access to a garden, that were better maintained, more like shared houses rather than containment units.
Imagine all the acres of land in Cuyahoga County dedicated to safe affordable housing at that time! The only new housing I see now is being built for the wealthy.
When children do eat lead paint chips, and I now know that little children will put anything in their mouths, they die.
Parents can do everything in their power to prevent exposure, and it happens anyway. Our daughter is fine. What if we hadn’t known to mop every day and keep the windows closed? Would she have tested over 10 mcg/dL? Would she have been able to clear the lead from her body? I’m grateful that she did and she is healthy. But I think about the people of Flint. And I think about the people of Cleveland and Lakewood and East Cleveland.
While our family has a lower income, we also have a fair amount of privilege. We are white. I have a graduate degree and grew up in a middle class family. My husband served in the military. He has a stable job. These experiences of benefiting from the system and being treated with respect by authority figures gave us the naive confidence and feeling of justification to do research, ask for help and even demand justice.
Even still, while we secured the lead abatement grant and Lakewood Alive was a helpful advocate, we ultimately had to move two times in eighteen months, leave two homes we’d invested our hearts in, just in order to find a safe home for our daughter. And we were fortunate enough to have the credit score and income (just barely) to do so. Both of our former homes still house young children.
How much does lead stigma and racist, classist bigotry perpetuate the valuing of profit over life that results in housing injustice? I don’t accept my former landlord’s implication that if you really loved your child, you would move far away from here. Lakewood and Cleveland are wonderful cities. Safe housing should be a right for all people.
I’m writing in part to give voice to the mothers who can’t because they are working two or three jobs to provide for their families, and to the fathers who have accepted that babies with high lead levels are just part of life in America.