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Code enforcement in Ohio

A four part series on Code Enforcement Aug-Sep 2015

Part 1: Code Enforcement is a lousy way to get repairs except...doing nothing is worse. (Part one of four in RHINO's series).

    Ohio's Landlord Tenant Law ORC 5321.07 provides a way for tenants to force repairs, but the process is cumbersome, time consuming, and, in many jurisdictions, unpredictable. Municipal code enforcement could be an alternative. Here's the biggesproblem: tenants don't call. For example, here's an excerpt from a discussion that took place this week on Slumlord Watch of Columbus (abridged and anonymized). 

LMM: Mice, Roaches, mold, bad plumbing, leaking bathroom ceiling, my basement apartment gets wet when it rains heavily, just everything.

EH: Did you call 311 Code Enforcement? Are you on a yearly lease?

LMM: Lived here 3 years and everything is worsening. Im tired of constantly spraying, tired of landlords empty promises, and can't wait to move. I'm on a monthly lease but didn't call code because im quite sure they would make us all move out of this bldg.

ST: Appears you have answered your own question LMM, if your building is so bad that code would shut it down then, it is time to move. I know that can be expensive but your health is of prime concern especially if you have children. One can also put the money into an escrow account and serve a letter outlining what needs to be done to the landlord. But remember, there is a reason why your landlord is doing a month to month lease, he can ask you to leave which is cheaper than fixing the concerns. 

EH: If you are a Vet, the Vets Commission can help you out with some one time financial assistance to move. I believe that the City has a program to help you get out of there if they shut the place down.

LSH: You need to call 311 about these issues. The mold can be toxic and it is very unhealthy to breath in those mold spores. This can cause serious lung and resperatory problems.

    Cities are wrestling with the problems of code enforcement programs. Since the Great Recession of 2007-20??, programs that are based on complaints and focused on resident homeowners don't reach the problem of neighborhood blight. Complaint driven systems don't work if tenants won't complain (see above) and systems based on voluntary compliance by residents don't work on absentee owners. Canton is among the Ohio cities dealing with these dilemmas. Stories in the Canton Repository over the last couple of weeks describe duelling demonstrations between neighbors vs. slumlord's tenants, cost and inefficiency of inspections and judicial impatience with a local slumlord.
    So what can be done to improve code enforcement? 

  • Tenants should call code enforcement when they believe a problem materially affects health and safety. Sometimes getting a call from an inspector is enough to motivate a landlord to act. Other times inspectors will pursue enforcement. Even if they don't, just having a copy the inspection report can help a tenant is she/he wants to put rent in escrow under ORC 5321.07. The tenant's concern about being forced to move is real but rare. Most code enforcement agencies won't go to condemnation unless there is an imminent threat to health and safety. Fears of retaliation are legitimate, but most times having an inspection report will sway a judge to dismiss a retaliatory eviction or termination. It can't hurt to get a legal opinion.

  • Cities need to train the inspectors in landlord-tenant duties and resources. Inspectors can get confused about who's responsible for mold, bugs, smoke detectors. Ohio Landlord Tenant Law says that tenants are responsible for "requirements imposed on tenants by all applicable state and local housing, health, and safety codes". If you have a question about what's covered, ask an inspector before you call them out.

  •  Cities need to move away from a "complaint driven" to a targetted (data driven) enforcement plan. Data driven enforcement doesn't depend on tenants or neighbors to make that call but focuses on properties most likely to deteriorate, eg. rental, low income, absentee owner, and/or corporate owner. For example, in the City of Cleveland Heights, every rental unit is inspected inside and out every three years, whether there is a complaint or not. What's the rule where you live?  The City of Massillon learned this week that using Federal funds for general purpose inspection is a mistake. They almost had to reimburse the Feds for money misspent.

  • Cities should target absentee owners. Traditionally enforcement officers have been evaluated based on their number of "closed" cases. Under a system like that, inspectors quickly realized that charging a resident homeowner (aka "sitting duck") with an overhanging tree limb is an easy way to get another knotch in her/his belt. Chasing down an absentee owner, especially if it is a corporation, is lots of work. Beefing up city law departments to use county registrieslease disclosure, and title searching can help.  Hint: enacting a landlord registry for your local community makes enforcement even easier.

Rental housing advocates should not think of code enforcement as someone else's problem. Where was code enforcement for tenants and neighbors when needed at Riviera Maia inToledo, at Shaker Square, and in Whitehall, three of the many multifamily complexes in Ohio which have now been condemned because conditions slowly deteriorated without enforcement.

Update: Canton considers raising rental registration fees.  

Rental registration: Razing Slums or Raising Funds
(Second episode in RHINO's series on Code Enforcement)
    Public officials and advocates who want to create rental registration will tell you that rental registration programs will improve code enforcement and reduce slum and blight conditions from neighborhoods. But without inspections, rental registration is just another tax on landlords. 
    Case in point.  In the City of Canton where community activists and civic leaders are fighting for improved enforcement, the elected officials are offering increases in rental registration fees. The Canton Repository has endorsed doing more than raising fees. "Councilman John Mariol, D-7, said one solution is to increase registration fees and then dedicate revenue to hiring additional code enforcement officers. That’s a good start; so is the idea of returning to regular inspections of rental properties instead of relying on complaints alone, and carving out exceptions for good landlords who keep their properties up to code." RHINO agrees: more money alone won't solve the problem. 
    As RHINO noted last week, depending on tenants to call the city when there's a hole in the roof, broken windows, mold, or flooded basements is naive. Tenants fear retaliation from the landlord (charges for repairs, rent increases, termination, or blacklisting) if they contact city officials. Even though there is some protection in the Landlord Tenant Law, tenants often figure "why go to court, I've already been screwed." When tenants need to choose between affordable and safe, they will choose affordable most of the time because the alternative may be homelessness. That's why targeted enforcement is so important. 
    One question is: why don't landlords support stronger enforcement? Landlords may be half right in saying that raising the registration fees won't solve the problem, but they are half wrong in thinking that the city can afford to go after the bad guys with no money. Getting of slumlords who fail to maintain their properties and give the rental business a bad reputation should be a goal for housing providers. Short term profits could be the answer, but that's exactly the point. Property ownership is a long term investment. Slumlording is a short term project.. Quoting the same Repository article: "Mariol said this approach may result in good landlords paying more now for others’ mistakes, but they will see the benefits in time through stable property values. In the most recent valuation by the Stark County Auditor’s Office, Canton was the only community to see property values decline." Repository Columnist Charlita Goshay calls this issue a "Fight for the Soul of the City."  
    Here's the other question: why aren't social service providers demanding targeted housing code inspections in the cities where they work with low income households? If this were a problem like child labor or human trafficking, social workers would be in the lead. So now, knowing what we know about the impacts of unhealthy housing, why aren't agencies in the public policy arena? It could be the same fear that tenants express: some kind of housing is better than the alternative. Or it could be the same excuse the landlords use: advocacy has some short term costs. Letters to the courageous editors and columnists at the Repository would be one way to support reform. Showing up at Council hearings would be another. Yes, it involves taking a stand or working late, but that's what the profession's ethics have demanded since the early days of blight fighting crusaders in the slums of New York at the turn of the 19th Century.
    Making code enforcement work is not just a Canton issue. As noted last week, many Ohio cities are wrestling with the issues of blight in the wake of the Great Recession. Activists needed:  Apply where you live and work.
Code Enforcement is a 2015 RHINO priority.

Part 3: RHINO responds to your questions about code enforcement 
    KarenR says: "We have no ordinance on our books for code enforcement of mold." RHINO suggests looking to the housing code for help. Mold only exists where there is standing water and most of the time the water source is a housing code violation. In a recent case in Zanesville, the water source was a leaking AC unit that was supplied by management and not operating properly. Tenant complained to management and the maintenance man wiped the area with clorox and painted over it. When the problem returned tenant called the housing inspector who cited the owner to stop the water leak and repair the drywall before repainting. 
    Karen didn't ask but...bed bugs is another one of those problems that the Ohio Department of Health doesn't recognize as a health problem. Again, housing code to the rescue. Many local housing departments have "nuisance" code provisions that can be used against bed bugs. Check your local code. In Cleveland, a special section on bed bugs was added to the code after bed bugs became a problem. 
    CindySn asks: "What can we do? Most local communities don't have a housing code." Here's where having a Health Department can help. Every county in Ohio has a health department (many cities also). Where there is no housing code in rural areas or small towns, county health departments end up taking on housing related issues. In Columbiana County, for instance, the health department intervened on behalf of a tenant who's furnace was broken because cold temperatures was a health hazard. Health departments across Ohio are becoming more and more sensitive to "healthy homes" issues. Do you have water leaks and children in the home? Maybe health department needs to be called to check for lead poisoning risks and order plumbing repairs!
    SherryH asks: "Can we use code enforcement to get an automatic entry door for people in wheelchairs?" RHINO is not familiar with any local housing, health or safety codes that require landlords to add accessibility features. The solution for accessibility is to request a reasonable modification under the provisions of the Fair Housing Act. Caution, unless the property receives a Federal subsidy, tenant may be responsible to pay for the modification. 
    Wait! Because properties built after 1991 are required to have some accessibility features many of these requirements have been written into the Ohio Building Code. One example is disability parking spaces which are required in properties built after 1991 and required to be added when a parking lot is resurfaced. Some research is required but may be worth the effort.
    A question from week one of RHINO's code enforcement series. LMM says: "I'm on a monthly lease but didn't call code because im quite sure they would make us all move out of this bldg." Well, LMM, if the conditions are an immediate threat to health and safety, local code enforcers could order tenants to vacate. For example, if the building might collapse at any time; or no heat during sub zero conditions, or no water. Each of these situations may need a different approach. No heat in the winter could be subject to the PUCO Winter Shut Off rule or make the household eligible for Emergency HEAP. Working with the inspector and your local elected officials can help. Sometimes a municipality will provide emergency relocation assistance using CDBG funds. Also don't be afraid to call the media to focus attention on your needs. 
Part 4: Code Enforcement Reform-making a difference where you live 
    How important is citizen action on code enforcement? The picture is mixed. Sometimes housing advocates can start the discussion; sometimes advocates can shape reform; sometimes nothing works...but it's worth a try. Here's three case studies from around Ohio. 
     Slumlord Watch of Columbus Ohio (SWCO) was founded by community activists in 2011. The project was modeled on the Baltimore Slumlord Watch which is a "name and shame" blog site. SWCO's mission includes an on going interaction with the city's code enforcers. "Our purpose is to engage, discuss and document these properties and work with the CIty of Columbus in 'making it right.' " Right now there are 463 members on the group's Facebook site. Their energy was captured in a TV report and the group probably had a big influence on the Columbus Dispatch 2013 series "Legacy of Neglect: Slumlords play the system."  Mayor Coleman credits that series for mapping the path to code enforcement reform.  “I didn’t have to pay a consultant to tell us how to do things better.” SWCO features new material almost daily. In addition to documenting blighted properties, the moderators encourage community members to call in complaints to the city hotline (311), to participate in community meetings and sometimes to exercise their tenants' rights. 
    In Newark Ohio, Nancy Welu reports that advocates from the Newark Freedom School (NFS) started working on housing code reform in 2011 when NFS members were invited to participate in an ad hoc committee along with landlord, tenant, legal services and social agency representatives. The committee was convened by the chairperson of the Council's Safety committee. The focus was to create a Rental Registration program for the City of Newark. Working with the City Law Director, draft legisation was created, but the ordinance died in committee. In 2012 another ad hoc committee reviewed the property maintenance code. Advocates were hopeful that they could win a policy that any property with three property maintenance violations in one year would automatically get an interior inspection. Suddenly, the Safety Director disbanded the committee. The only action by Council was to increase fines against property owners for high weeds and junk. NFS continues to be interested in rental registration, mandatory interior inspections for chronic violators, and a "point of rental" inspection. Nancy says: "We currently have 2 1/2 property maintenance inspectors who are, in my opinion, great guys but they need more help. I have personally...talked to these guys and their attitudes have definitely changed over the past few years." 
    In Cleveland, neighborhood advocates have been working with officials at Building and Housing as part of the Code Enforcement Partnership (CEP). Phil Star reports that CEP " designed to have eyes on all residential properties in the city on a 4 year cycle with the CDCs [Community Development Corporations] selecting up to 140 of the worst properties each year." Two problems have emerged from this process: not all CDC's have Code Enforcement as a "front burner" issue and the Department of Building & Housing has an uneven record in responding to the CDC complaints. Recently, Cleveland's Shaker Square Alliance (SSA) has begun to take a more pro active role outside the CEP. SSA Executive Director Charles Bromley reports that code enforcement is on the agenda of every meeting of the group. Key issues for SSA are getting increased staff to address multifamily properties, once/year inspections of multifamily properties, and expanded inspections by Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing when an owner is being considered by a Housing Choice Voucher tenant. Bromley says: "Our #1 targets are out-of-town LLCs who are completely ignoring their responsibilities for their buildings." 
    Here's some lessons from these examples.
Find a media partner. In Canton, the daily newspaper Canton Repository has provided extensive news coverage and editorial comment to the issue of code enforcement. In Cleveland, reporter Mark Naymik has given on going attention to the failures of code enforcement in the Shaker Square neighborhood.( ) The Columbus Dispatch series "Legacy of Neglect" was instrumental in bringing about change in code enforcement practices. 
  • Engage your membership. Keep your grassroots members busy working on the issue. Picketting, "name and shame" posting, and showing up at City Council meetings every week, are all ways to keep your members engaged. The landlords will block true reform unless there is a countervailing force of neighbors and tenants who are willing to round up votes to offset political donations. 
  • Find allies. Reach out to homeowners in neighborhood where slum and blight are bringing down home values. Reach out to civic organizations which don't usually keep company with grassroots groups. League of Women Voters is an example of a group that will get involved in "good government" issues like stopping urban blight. 
  • Find compromises. Many cities favor rental registration as a way to offset the costs of code enforcement. Landlords always oppose fee increases. Citizen advocates can make a deal with the city officials: "we'll help you get more revenue if you will target enforcement on the worst offenders." 
  • Do your homework. Knowing how inspection really works gives your efforts credibility. Talk to inspectors about how they do their work. Read inspection reports. Sit in on code enforcement cases in your municipal court. You will become credible experts in no time. 
  • Fight for information. There's no reason why local communities can't put rental registration and outstanding code violations on the web in a searchable form so that community activists, neighbors or renters can check out the conditions of specific properties. If the city won't post the info on line, find some bright young millennials to get the data and put it on line for you. As Eddie Hamilton of SWCO says: "Disclosure of a public record is not libel or slander." 
    At the beginning of the series on Code Enforcement, RHINO noted that the only thing that's worse than calling Code Enforcement is not calling. Phil Star makes the point that calling over and over and waiting through months of bureaucratic delay has a numbing effect on neighborhood activists. Still, winning real reform of the system could be the answer. The only thing worse than not winning reforms is not trying. 
Next week rhino!UP will move on to another rental housing topic, but code enforcement continues to be a RHINO 2015 Priority. You can read the whole series and more at: 

 Notes & Links