New evidence developed by the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development (the Poverty Center) at Case Western Reserve University has prompted local government, nonprofit, and community leaders to advance policies that will protect children in rental homes from lead poisoning, and it is shaping how all sectors view the billion-dollar issue of lead hazards and potential solutions.

During the foreclosure crisis in Cleveland, 4 in 10 children entering kindergarten tested positive for lead exposure. Lead exposure, likely from lead paint in older homes, puts children behind in school before they’ve even had a chance to start, according to Poverty Center research.

Living in poor-quality housing units or units that are tax delinquent, owned by speculators, or in foreclosure can lead to lower literacy scores for kindergartners, creating achievement gaps before entering school. Living in such homes is associated with a high risk of elevated blood lead levels, child maltreatment, and residential instability, which all influence literacy scores. The study found that living near distressed housing is also problematic, affecting children’s ability to be healthy and ready to succeed. Kindergartners who lived within 500 feet of distressed properties had lower literacy scores than those living farther away.

In response to the Poverty Center’s findings, the City of Cleveland changed its approach to addressing lead exposure. Before the study, public responses were reactive after a child had tested positive for elevated blood lead levels. The city is now registering rental properties and inspecting every rental property in Cleveland every four years, including an assessment of some elements of lead risk. These processes will force landlords to comply with lead abatement standards. Through the BUILD Health Challenge, the Poverty Center is partnering with local health and housing stakeholders on a smartphone app with the inspection data to allow renters to learn about potential lead hazards before choosing a home.

According to Rebekah Dorman, director of the Office of Early Childhood at Cuyahoga County, the study prompted many people advancing school readiness and child health to take a holistic view—not only addressing individual and family challenges, but looking at housing and neighborhoods where children live.

The study also showed that high-quality preschool programs do not ameliorate the effects of lead exposure, programs that are often proposed as antidotes. This conclusion has started conversations about how to better serve children exposed to lead.

Over the past two decades, the Poverty Center has laid the foundation for this research by linking administrative data about people to property and neighborhood conditions, building off longtime support from local philanthropy, the City of Cleveland, and Cuyahoga County for data development.

In May 2018, the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) conferred the G. Thomas Kingsley Impact Award to the Poverty Center for this analysis of the effects of poor housing conditions on school readiness. The award recognizes an NNIP Partner organization that has demonstrated impact using neighborhood data to improve local policy and practice to benefit low-income communities.

The Poverty Center is the Cleveland partner in the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, a network of local data intermediaries in more than 30 cities, coordinated by the Urban Institute. All of them, like the Poverty Center, are navigators to help their communities use data to inform decisions and advance equity.

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