Stepping up Code Enforcement in Ohio February 28, 2021.
After the Great Recession, a new awakening of activism around rental housing and rental rights arose. Now as the CoronaCrisis seems to be coming under control, there's renewed interest in housing code enforcement as a tool for family and neighborhood stability. Over the past two weeks, local enforcement have been in the news around Ohio.
On February 18th, WCPO reported on aggressive enforcement in Cincinnati against the absentee owner of a multifamily complex. "...advocates say the region’s shortage of affordable housing means far too many renters live in conditions that are unhealthy and unsafe." The investor owner of the complex lives in Florida, but controls dozens of limited liability corporations (LLCs) which, in turn, own substandard properties around the US.
On February 22nd, the Canton Repository reported on an effort by Massillon City Council to raise rental registration fees in order to provide more funds for inspectional services. "Ramping up to an $80 collection fee could raise about $300,000, some of which could assist code enforcement operations each year. Funds may be utilized to pay for dumpsters to place outside rundown rental houses or apartments. That potential benefit aims to assist owners with cleaning up shoddy rental houses and blighted properties." Owners have joined in the debate.
Also on Feb 22nd, Cleveland.com reported on a budget hearings at Cleveland City Council where the Department of Building and Housing and the Cleveland Housing Court raised concerns about around the problem of enforcing code requirements against out of town LLCs. "Members of City Council frequently complain that absentee landlords are buying and failing to maintain property in their wards. Several raised the issue again Monday with [B&H Director] Donald and later with Housing Court Judge W. Mona Scott. Scott said tackling the limited liability companies is tricky because the law makes it difficult to pierce the 'corporate veil' and reach the company owners. 'How to hold them accountable? That’s the question of the decade,' Scott said. One strategy might be for the city to seek liens against the LLCs, preventing the sale of their property."
Most cities' code enforcement is based on voluntary compliance. The city identifies a violation, issues a warning or ticket to the property owner and then waives the financial penalty when the violation is corrected. Very few cases end up in court usually only after repeated offenses and non cooperation. This is a money losing proposition for cities that to pay inspectors only to see owners pay a "wrist slap" penalty or have the charges "nallied" after "voluntary" compliance.
At the Cleveland budget hearings, more than one Councilman suggested that making scofflaws pay for their violations could generate revenue for more inspections. More revenue for inspections is the principle reason behind Massillon's move to increase rental registration.
Another barrier to effective enforcement is the fact that housing departments need the permission of the owner or a tenant to make an interior inspection. Without owner or tenant cooperation, cities must obtain a search warrant to do an inspection. Catch 22: you can't get a warrant from a judge without some prior evidence of the conditions that need to be inspected.
Asking a tenant to complain and permit access puts the tenant at risk of retaliation or worse. The inspector might find the home uninhabitable and require the tenant to move. The WCPO story profiles some courageous tenants who decided that they have "nothing left to lose."
At the Cleveland Budget Hearing, Director Donald revealed that there had been a dramatic drop in tenant complaints in 2020, most likely because tenants were falling behind in rent during the Corona Recession. At the same time, the City suspended its routine "health and safe" inspections when the pandemic hit. Cleveland's plan to inspect every rental property every 5 years is now at least one year behind schedule.