3 owners face charges for lead violations in city

A sign posted by the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department covers the door at 530 Acklin Avenue and warns people to stay out because of lead hazards.

The owners of three lead-contaminated houses in Toledo are facing criminal and civil charges for allowing tenants to remain after orders to vacate were posted.

Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson said Thursday she authorized city prosecutors “to become more aggressive” and file charges against the owners of the houses where children had been poisoned and continue to live.

“We must use every tool we have available to ensure we reduce any incidence of lead that can adversely affect our children,” the mayor said during a news conference.

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VIDEO: Health commissioner Eric Zgodzinski talks to The Blade about lead

Joe Howe, city housing prosecutor, declined to identify the three properties or the owners until charges are filed, which is expected to occur today.

More than 500 homes in Ohio, including 27 others in Toledo, were included on a list published this month by the Ohio Department of Health that have been deemed unsafe for habitation after a child living there tested with high lead levels, and property owners failed to make required repairs.

Health department officials knew for months, and in some cases more than a year, that people should not be living in those lead-contaminated homes.

In the oldest case, at 116 Steel St., records show that inspectors issued a report in October, 2014, detailing lead hazards in the home. In September, health officials issued a “vacate” order for the property.

A Blade report earlier this month found more than half of the homes in Toledo ordered vacated are currently occupied, many with children in them. Many residents said they were unaware of the vacate orders or lead issues entirely.

Mayor Hicks-Hudson said Thursday there were missteps.

“That is why we are here today, to put people on notice,” she said.

Health Commissioner Eric Zgodzinski said families living in lead-contaminated homes need to have “safety nets” to make sure they have a new home.

“It is all about the kids and the families,” he said. “We want to make sure we have a safety net for families that might run into issues with the remediation because you don’t want to be in the house at that same point in time.”

Mr. Zgodzinski said four of the 27 homes are vacant and some have been or are in the process of being cleaned up. The health department is still targeting 16 homes because of the lead problems.

State law gives property owners 90 days to repair identified hazards after a risk assessment report is issued detailing results of the property inspection and required improvements. Property owners can apply for three, 90-day extensions. If those expire, the property is deemed noncompliant and orders to vacate are given. Within 14 days of that order, officials are to post signs on residences warning of the hazard and vacate warning.

Mr. Howe said the property owners would be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

“As a prosecutor, there is nothing more important than protecting children. They are our most vulnerable,” he said.

Mr. Howe said the goal is to have the residents move to other safe homes or apartments.

He said the renters were “surprised to learn and never notified” the homes had high lead levels.

“These tenants have no place to go,” Mr. Howe said.

Councilman Larry Sykes said it is difficult for some people to move because of their income levels.

“You can’t force them to move. We are hoping to work with them,” Mr. Sykes said. “We are working with public housing and other people who own property to find a place for them. We don’t want them on the streets.”

City Attorney John Madigan said the Hicks-Hudson administration would file for a “civil injunction action against selected landlords,” in an attempt to keep the owners from continuing to rent the properties until the lead hazard is removed.

Health officials told Toledo council’s committee of the whole on Thursday that they were working with multiple agencies to make sure residents of the lead-contaminated homes are assisted.

Councilman Peter Ujvagi said Toledo’s new lead-safe ordinance is a preventative effort meant to reduce overall blood lead levels in children over the next several years.

The city law, passed by council in August and revised earlier this month to stagger implementation based on census tracts, requires rental buildings built before 1978 with up to four units and home day-care centers to be certified “lead-safe.”

The state’s law already in place is reactionary, he said.

“Those 27 homes that should have been abated, the child [lead level] was the alarm — which is pretty tragic — indicating there was lead in the home,” Mr. Ujvagi said.

Contact Ignazio Messina at: imessina@theblade.com or 419-724-6171 or on Twitter @IgnazioMessina.

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