City paint program didn’t work for most smaller suppliers, leaving Sherwin-Williams as main provider

By Rachel Dissell/Cleveland Documenters

Cleveland’s effort to provide free paint for tenants and homeowners fell short of its goals over the past two years, with fewer than 400 of the expected 1,000 homes completed.

Administration officials also had hoped to use neighborhood paint and hardware stores as vendors for the program, and early on told City Council members they were contacting 18 of them with opportunities to take part under a non-competitively bid contract.

But hometown paint-producing giant Sherwin-Williams Co. ended up being the biggest beneficiary, being paid more than $378,000 for paint and supplies in 2020 and 2021.

In the past two years, City Council has approved more than a million dollars to fund the program, which, according to legislation, aimed to help homeowners and tenants maintain their homes’ exteriors and help reduce lead-based paint hazards, a pressing problem in a city where young children are poisoned by the brain-damaging toxin at almost four times the national average.

Read more about Cleveland residents’ experience with the program here.

Last year, Neighborhood Services Commissioner Louise Jackson told council committee members that four stores had agreed to participate. She declined to name them “until everything was put in place.”Jackson told Cleveland Documenters that one vendor, True Value, didn’t follow through to participate, and another potential vendor, PPG, didn’t meet the requirements because its stores were not open on Saturdays. Ultimately, only one other paint provider, Bloom Brothers Supply, participated. As the largest vendor, Sherwin-Williams billed the city for paint and supplies throughout 2020 and 2021. The city did not provide a contract with the company for the 2020 program, although it did share other contracts it had with the company to supply paint to city departments.

As the city rolled out the program, the administration and council were in the process of approving a tax financing package for Sherwin-Williams to develop a $300 million world headquarters in downtown Cleveland. Company officials did not respond to emails or messages inquiring about Sherwin- Williams’ participation.

In 2021, Sherwin-Williams, which had $18 billion in revenue the previous year,  contributed $625,000 to be paid over five years to CHN Housing Partners for a different program that gives grants to property owners for lead-safe home repair, including paint.

Paint assistance resurrected

Cleveland had a paint program in the 1990s and 2000s that refunded property owners for paint they purchased. The current Exterior Paint Program expanded income eligibility guidelines and didn’t require homeowners or tenants to pay up front for paint. Instead, it provided vouchers for supplies and paint and then reimbursed vendors.

‘A lot of people didn’t know about it’

Bloom Brothers joined as a supplier in 2021, enabling residents in Wards 4 and 5 to get their supplies and paint from the store on E. 116th Street in the Woodland Hills neighborhood. Bloom Brothers were paid a total of $2,558 through Dec. 2, 2021.

Owner Edward Bloom said the city’s new process worked smoothly for him. Bloom tried to recruit people for the program with flyers on his counter, he said, but “a lot of people didn’t know about it.”

Providing paint before being paid didn’t work for many suppliers

Local hardware and paint store operators interviewed by Cleveland Documenters shared a variety of reasons for not signing up to be vendors. Several had past negative experiences with timely payments from the city.  Others cited some of the contractual requirements – such as being open until 7 p.m. on Saturdays – and concerns about inventory, particularly amid the global supply-chain shortages of  2020 and 2021.  (The approved Sherwin-Williams stores close at 5 p.m. on Saturdays according to their websites.)

Bob Becka, store manager at Sutton Industrial Hardware on Prospect Avenue, said accepting vouchers for supplies or paint is onerous and riskier for small businesses that don’t have the leeway to front those costs. 

“We start not getting reimbursed and it’s a major hit on the bottom line,” he said. “And I don’t want to sound negative — we’ve just had some problems in dealing with the City of Cleveland.”

The city contract required paint to be in stock, which was a major issue due to supply chain problems, Becka said.

“We might put in an issue for 144 gallons and be shipped only 24 of them,” he said.

Becka said the store might consider participating if the process for reimbursement changed in the future — and if the supply chain improved.

Greg Caputo, who manages Torch True Value Hardware on Lorain Avenue, didn’t recall the city reaching out about the store being a vendor, though in the past the business provided paint for free to city programs.

Caputo said vendor requirements would be tough for independent stores that can’t afford to front the costs for paint, which can run up to $50 a gallon. “It would come out of our pocket until we could get paid,” he said. “And we’ve got weekly payrolls and bills from the suppliers and all of that to pay.”

But neighborhood stores like Torch, which has operated in the city for 100 years, could be helpful partners because they often have relationships with customers who could benefit from the program, he said.

City Council President Blaine Griffin said he’s not sure if “mom and pop” stores were equipped for the volume or expectations of the program, adding that many don’t carry paint or supplies in large volume but, rather, specialized in hardware and rodent- and insect-extermination products.

Longtime owner not ‘comfortable’ with safety

Doris Greggo, who owns Alexander’s Hardware on E. 55th Street, said the store participated in past iterations of the program dating back to the 1990s but that she never felt that enough money was provided to paint the homes adequately.

Back then, she said, the reimbursement was around $200 or $300 per house.

Under the current program, the city can reimburse up to $1,500 for paint and supplies to homeowners and $750 for tenants. The average amount, based on a square-footage calculation the city makes, is closer to $600, city officials said.

Homeowners and tenants also must provide the labor, which means painting the house on their own or hiring a contractor. That’s not feasible for many people in the areas Greggo serves, she said, and that is among the reasons she declined to be a vendor.

“It is really hard to ask a homeowner to properly paint a house or to get someone to do it safely, especially with concerns about lead paint,” she said. “The reality is, if you have someone up on a ladder scraping old paint – for a few dollars – it will not be done right. It will not be safe…I just don’t feel comfortable at all with it.”

Commissioner Jackson acknowledged that the cost and availability of labor were challenges and said the city was open to finding ways to assist.

“We are still trying to gather information about contractors that will be able to do a painting,” she told Cleveland Documenters. “But at the present time, we are just providing the paint and the paint supplies.”         

Jackson said training videos show homeowners and tenants how to wet down surfaces during preparation to mitigate lead-paint hazards and how to use masking tape and plastic sheeting to catch and remove paint chips.   

“Not only do we want people to paint their homes,” Griffin said. “We want them to do it right.”

Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition is working to expand the pool of contractors certified as U.S. EPA Repair, Renovate, and Painting contractors. More than 260 contractors have already been trained in recent years with most getting certified, Griffin said.

Greggo, whose father, Alexander, opened the store’s original location at E. 30th and Scovil 72 years ago, called the idea of the paint program a worthy one.

But the reality is that many homes in Central need “a little more than paint,” and the deadline to paint by fall isn’t realistic. Corners get cut, houses end up half painted, and children are at risk from the paint chips. Central already sees enough of the fallout from lead poisoning, she said.

What would work better, Greggo said, would be a fully-funded program that gave teens and young adults the training and skills that would allow them to safely spend the summer painting homes and improving the neighborhoods where they live.

“I would like to see some of the money the [Cleveland] Clinic just gave to the lead effort go toward that,” Greggo said.

Find coverage of local government meetings at https://cleveland.documenters.org/