rhino!UP News November 2020

rhino!UP for November 1, 2020

Creepy Cleveland landlords threaten tenants for supporting students

In the past several weeks, RHINO has reported about "creepy landlords" in Colorado and New York who "threatened" their tenants to persuade them to vote Republican. The connection was clear the was a partisan.You know, the kind of landlord who bans you from posting yard signs on his rental property and then puts up his own. But a more sinister coercion was reported this week in Cleveland. Warehouse District landlord tells tenants that rent will go up if Cleveland schools tax levy increase passes. Cleveland.com says "The proposed tax increase, which the school district said is necessary to avoid cuts, has garnered support from public officials and the Greater Cleveland Partnership. However, some owners of large amounts of real estate in Cleveland have expressed their opposition. At least one, Doug Price of K&D Group, has said he contributed to Cleveland’s Future Fund, a dark money group that sent mailers to residents and advertised on Facebook against the measure. The ads say the levy will result in increased rents and small businesses closing." Wait, isn't this voter intimidation? Some election officials say yes. Ohio tenants should check with Ohio Attorney General or Ohio Election Commission if you are aggrieved.

The real relationship between rent and owners' costs is far more complicated because of the preferential tax benefits for property ownership. Most corporate owners of rental housing try to cover their operating costs from the rent. They "make money" from the tax benefits of the LLC loophole, Federal tax benefits, and local property tax incentives. In comparison to tax benefits, a 5 mill tax increase is chicken feed. So why try to coerce tenants to vote against property tax increases?

  • The threat of rent increases could be just an anti-tax reflex action like when the MD hits your knee with a rubber mallet.

  • More likely, it could be a way to head off tenant complaints about a rent increase that was already in the works.

  • But the most likely answer is a market rent squeeze. That's when operating costs go up and "market rents" decline. Owners may be forced to dip into profits.

A NextCity report says In the U.S., City Rents Are Falling, and Suburban Rents Are Climbing, based on new research from Apartment List. City Lab proclaims: "Record low interest rates and severe housing shortages had many people already primed to leave the city; the pandemic gave them a push." Similar stories have been appearing in Curbed and ABC News. The Apartment List graph for Cleveland is here: a 1.8% decline in the last month.

If comparable properties in the area are experiencing lower rent revenue, they may start offering signing bonuses or new amenities to lure new tenants. Otherwise, landlords will lose a lot more money from vacancies than they would lose increased operating expenses. Tenants could be encouraged to negotiate and 2021 could be a renter's market for urban dwellers.

Trick or treat: LSHKA re-introduced

Emily Benfer reports that the Lead Safe Housing for Kids Act 2020 has been reintroduced in Congress. Here's the story. One big question is "why now?" With the end of the 116th Congress coming in 64 days, the bill must just be a news grabber that will need to be reintroduced next session.

Northeast Ohio lawsuits against CDC Moratorium

Last week RHINO reported on the latest challenge to the CDC moratorium. An update on the Housing Law List summarizes the status of the challenge this way. "Another case has been filed challenging the halt order in Akron, Ohio, though as of yet no preliminary injunction motion appears to...have been filed."

Footnote

Nov 1, 2020, Columbus Business Journal. The advantages of urban living are still evident in Downtown Cleveland despite residents’ adjusted lifestyles. "Downtown Cleveland is Northeast Ohio’s fastest-growing neighborhood. Between 2013 and 2018, the Downtown Cleveland population grew by 48%, according to census data" The advantages of living in downtown Cleveland are so great that the Downtown Cleveland Alliance paid to advertise in Columbus. (your rent dollars at work,)

Winter heating: dollars and good sense. November 8, 2020

Just relax: Elections have consequences for housing advocates, but until the dust settles RHINO's ideas will be just as useless as the rest of the speculating class. Instead, RHINO today focuses on some slightly more predictable aspects of housing in Ohio: winter heating. (check the poem at https://rhino-news.rhinohio.com/home for proof.)

Winter heating is a tangle of issues and concerns for renters. Most winter maintenance is a landlord duty under ORC 5321.04 (A) (4). But sometimes waiting for the landlord to think that your comfort is his concern could take all winter. The householder's goal should be to find a balance between comfort, safety, and cost. Here are some ideas.

  1. Check your furnace and chimney for leaks. Natural gas and propane leaks can be detected by a distinctive smell. Call your gas company. Gas leak blamed for deadly Mercer County house explosion; 2 others injured in blast.

  2. Replace furnace filters. Clean filters let your furnace work more efficiently and remove airborne dust particles from your lungs. Mostly filters are cheap and easy to replace, but landlords often skip routine replacement unless they are paying the utilities. If you have baseboard heating, take off the cover and vacuum thoroughly to pull out the dust.

  3. Unclutter furnace room, especially if you have a flame heating unit. Storing flammables near an open flame furnace is dangerous! Furnace room clutter can also restrict the furnace's air intake that's needed for efficient operation.

  4. Install a Carbon Monoxide (CO) detector. Inefficient furnaces and leaky chimneys can release deadly CO gas into the living space. Odorless and poisonous, CO can put you to sleep forever. Ohio Fire Code requires that landlords install and maintain CO detectors in rental units that have flame heating or an attached garage. This is a new requirement and landlords might not be in the habit of compliance. Give a written notice and wait a reasonable time before bringing legal action.

  5. Replace smoke detector batteries. Red Cross urges smoke alarms tests this weekend. "Since July 1, American Red Cross Northern Ohio volunteers have responded to more than 320 home fires throughout the 31-county region to help more than 1,200 adults and children with urgent needs like emergency lodging, financial assistance and recovery planning." The landlord's duty to replace batteries may be governed by a local ordinance.

  6. Seal the deal. Caulking, door sweeps, and window coverings can reduce cold air from entering through windows and doors. Sometimes tenants need owners' permission to make modifications to the rental unit, so check your lease. Check here for some ideas.

  7. Never use the oven for heat. You could be producing CO risks. You could burn out the heating element of the oven. You could put children at risk of burns.

  8. Safety check space heaters. Both electric and flame space heaters have risks when operating improperly. READ THE MANUAL, GUYS! Then check 18 Space Heater Safety Tips [INFOGRAPHIC]

  9. Control humidity. In a well sealed home the moisture in the air may be too low or too high. Buying a digital humidity meter can help. High humidity can make you feel colder, cause window condensation, and contribute to mold. Low humidity can cause dry skin, scratchy throats, and trigger asthma symptoms. Using your bathroom vent fans or ceiling fans can help by moving most air from high humidity areas to lower humidity. More here.

  10. Dress warmly indoors. Running the furnace and wandering around in your undies is a money waster!

Elections have consequences (for housing and activists). November 15, 2020

Unless election run off lightning strikes twice in Georgia on January 5th, soon-to-be President Joe Biden will be forced to compromise with the Republican controlled Senate to make his campaign promises a reality. How will this effect housing? A pandemic, climate crises, and fraught election passions have masked the long term needs of renters.

Emergency rental assistance. The House and the Trump White House failed to make a deal before the election because both thought they'd be better off politically after the election. Then both Nancy and Trump lost! For now, the Republican Senate in the driver's seat. Austerity is their road map for the Corona relief package. Fight for what you need, but expect less.

Appropriations. The Senate also controls the FY21 appropriations that will fund the government until September 30, 2021. Don't expect expansion of housing programs. This bird has already flown.

Fiscal stimulus/Infrastructure. Biden's first chance to shape housing policy will most likely come in the form of an Infrastructure package in early 2021. Incentives to build more affordable housing *could be* a part of that package that is designed to put the country back to work. Advocates should start lobbying these ideas ASAP. Think shovel ready and focus on job creation more than suffering families. Partner with housing providers.

FY 2022 Budget Plan (late February or early March) will provide another opportunity to begin to reshape Federal housing policy. Funding for Universal Housing Vouchers, Lead Safe Housing for Kids Act (LSHKA), and the "greening" of public and subsidized housing could be elements of the FY22 HUD budget. Each comes with a price tag that the Senate will be reluctant to pay. Enacting tax reforms or making cuts to other programs could be the trick to making the FY22 budget a genuine change document.

Housing and Climate Change. If Greening Federal Housing doesn't show up in the FY22 budget, it could turn up in some form in the Biden Climate plan. Stay tuned!

Racial justice. If LSHKA doesn't make it into the FY22 budget, it could appear as a part of Biden's pledge to address racial equity. African American and minority communities are particularly hard hit by lead poisoning, which contributes to life long impediments that hamper social equality.

Presidential powers. Both Obama and Trump showed that executive privilege provides an alternate pathway to change. President Biden is likely to rescind or replace Trump's regulations on Fair Housing issues. An interesting question is whether Biden decides to rebuild HUD or to shift "housing" programs to other departments. A past example is the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program (the largest Federal housing subsidy) is administered by the Internal Revenue Service. Will Biden pick a "housing person" for the "H" part of the acronym or a big city mayor more familiar with the "UD" mission of the agency?

Why should RHINOs care about all this? There are 3 levels to consider:

  1. As influencers, RHINOs can use policy knowledge to illuminate the dark alleys of DC for their local networks. Combatting the idea that "nothing is happening" can raise the awareness of your grassroots citizens.

  2. At the advocate level, knowing the housing policy choices helps you focus your messaging about the local impacts to your local Reps.

  3. And, at the activist level, building a citizen base around popular issues can push local Reps to get behind "the folks back home."

Finally, like the disclosures at the end of a TV drug advert, RHINO reminds you that lots can happen between now and the inauguration, financial collapse, foreign threats, persistent pandemic symptoms, another climate crisis... you get the idea. Thanks to Darrick Wade of CLASH for helping me think through these ideas. S.

Snow removal in Ohio November 29, 2020

"More wet than white" is the Farmer's Almanac forecast for the upcoming winter season. But that shouldn't be much consolidation to millions of Ohio renters faced with the snow removal dilemma. It's not too soon to start thinking about snow removal. Seventy years ago this week, the Great Appalachian Snow dumped 44" of snow in Steubenville with wind gusts of up to 60 MPH creating snow drifts over 20 feet. The entire state was blanketed!

Newcomers to Ohio are often shocked to learn that, in Ohio, snow removal is not part of a landlord's duty to keep the common areas safe and sanitary.

In 1979, the Ohio Supreme Court decided that landlords are not responsible to remove "natural accumulations" of snow and in a 1993 case, Justice Andy Douglas warned of "inherent dangers" in a case involving a local snow removal ordinance.

So what is a natural accumulation? If a landlord decides to plow the parking lot in a way that creates snow mountains around parked cars and sidewalks, that's no longer a "natural accumulation". If a parking lot melts and refreezes that may or may not be a "natural accumulation." Tenants could bring an action based on the landlord tenant law requirement that landlords "Keep all common areas of the premises in a safe and sanitary condition." The catch is: the landlord may decide to do nothing!

Can a landlord shift the snow removal duty to a tenant? Maybe!

1. The Ohio Landlord Tenant Law prohibits a landlord from shifting a landlord duty to a tenant. ORC 5321.13A, but....

2. A landlord may compensate a tenant to do snow removal in common areas. Tenant advocates recommend that the parties make a written agreement, separate from the lease. That way, failure to comply with the snow removal agreement won't result in eviction.

3. Keep in mind that in a single family rental property, the driveway and walkways are usually under the exclusive control of the tenant. Therefore they are not covered by the landlord's "common area" duty.

The Federal and State Fair Housing Acts may be of assistance if a tenant has a disability. When a tenant with a disability needs a change in a rule, policy or procedure, the tenant can ask for a reasonable accommodation (RA) of the snow removal policy. Don't wait til you trip or fall! Make the request before the snow flies. If the landlord refuses to comply or offer an alternative to your requested accommodation, you may file a complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission (OCRC)

Some years ago, at Cedar Oaks Apartments in Canton, the tenant organization developed a snow removal plan that included sidewalk clearing, salting, and parking lot plowing. In the past, tenants fought with snow mountains on the sidewalks and behind parked cars when plow drivers cleared the parking lot. In the tenants' plan, plow drivers were required to push snow into a vacant lot. Management said NO! (as in..."you can't tell us how to run our property.") So tenants filed a complaint with the OCRC. The case took almost a year to settle, but during that winter, tenants documented the barriers created by sloppy snow removal and hospital reports of "slip and fall" accidents. The following spring, tenants got a favorable settlement. In a multifamily property, a single person with a mobility impairment can win a snow removal accommodation that benefits all the neighbors.