Enforcing the housing code in CH
Springtime in Cleveland Heights. We can finally get out of our homes and see the early blooms of the daffodils and tulips. Taking a closer look, we may note that it is time to get that porch painted, or maybe the chimney needs tuckpointing. That may, in turn, lead us to wonder if our neighbor down the street is going to be getting their driveway redone. Or maybe it is not a neighbor down the street, but instead some unknown entity that owns the home, and already the grass needs cut, the broken window replaced, and the fallen gutter repaired.
It is hard enough as a homeowner to want to do some of our non-glamourous projects around the house, like tuckpointing and driveway repair, but it is especially hard to rationalize when there is an eyesore property nearby. Our city and our municipal court can, and do, play an important role in dealing with eyesore properties, but each has a distinct role.
In Lakewood v. Krebs, 150 Ohio Misc.2d 1, 2008-Ohio-7083, that court outlined and clarified the distinct roles of both a city and a court in dealing with building and housing code violations. It noted that the city is responsible for ensuring that building and housing codes are being followed. It is the city that inspects properties, issues notices of violations, and decides when to bring criminal charges when violations have not been corrected in a timely manner.
Until those charges are brought, the court, specifically the judge, is no different than an ordinary citizen. However, once a case is filed, the case shifts from the city to the court. The court controls the pace of the case, and if the defendant is found guilty of a violation of the housing code, it is the judge's responsibility to determine the appropriate sentence.
In most criminal cases, including housing code violation cases before our Municipal Court, the maximum sentence is up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. However, for housing code violation cases, each day a violation occurs or continues constitutes a separate offense, meaning that there is at least the potential that the sentence could be much more.
The overriding purposes of sentencing in criminal cases are to protect the public from future crime by the offender and others, and to punish the offender. Ohio courts have held that the overriding purposes in housing code cases are often different because the focus should be on bringing the property into compliance rather than dealing with past misconduct.
The city of Cleveland Heights and the court have recently taken steps to improve each of their abilities to deal with housing code violations. For example, the city has recently amended Chapter 1347 of its ordinances so that no certificate of occupancy will issue for residential rental property unless the property taxes or nuisance abatement fees are paid.
The city is also in the process of hiring a housing property investigator who will be responsible for maintaining an inventory of vacant, foreclosed, bank-owned, and nuisance properties; inspecting and providing updates on those properties; and pursuing the responsible parties in order to obtain compliance of code violations.
Finally, the city and court together are implementing a new filing system that should significantly decrease the amount of time that it takes from the case being first filed to it receiving a court date.
Such improvements, and others like them, will decrease the likelihood that each of us will walk out our front door only to see a problem property across the street. However, for some of those properties, it may still require a sentence like the one issued in Lakewood v. Krebs in order to get the owner to bring the property into compliance. In that case, Krebs ended up with five years of probation and $2,500 in fines, on top of being ordered to spend 30 days living in one of his dilapidated apartment buildings.
James Costello is a local attorney, acting judge, and candidate for Cleveland Heights Municipal Court Judge.