The lights are on. Is anyone home?
After conscientiously correcting all violations cited in her home’s point-of-sale (POS) report, a new homeowner repeatedly calls the Cleveland Heights housing department to schedule a reinspection.
A building inspector approves new driveway construction with barely a glance.
While rehabbing formerly neglected houses, contractors routinely fail to post building permits—with no consequences.
A resident sees the vacant house next door being shown to prospective renters. She wonders, “Were permits completed for plumbing, electrical and garage work? Is there an occupancy certificate on file? Bottom line, is it safe to live in?”
Each of us happens to be the owner-occupier of a duplex. For decades, every December without fail the housing department has invoiced us for new occupancy permits. Until 2020. No invoice. No explanation.
At one time, housing preservation in Cleveland Heights was a model for neighboring suburbs. What happened?
The inspector mentioned above, who did not bother to actually check out a driveway job, is not a city employee. He works for SAFEbuilt, the private equity-owned corporation to which former city manager Tanisha Briley outsourced our building department in 2016. Evidently the city pays SAFEbuilt whether their inspectors do the job or not.
Meanwhile, the city’s housing department has remained only partly in-house. After a conflict-of-interest scandal led to two inspector vacancies in 2019, POS inspections were farmed out to SAFEbuilt staff, one of whom did not bother to schedule a reinspection for the new homeowner cited above.
If the city’s shortcomings in code enforcement could all be attributed to outsourcing, the solution would be relatively simple. Large numbers of us would have to demand that the administration terminate its contracts with SAFEbuilt at the first opportunity, and reconstitute our building department and POS program. And we should do that.
Unfortunately, it will take considerably more effort to make our housing and building departments fully functional. In 2019, an internal review of housing department operations called them “chaotic.” Next, a lengthy assessment by Novak Consulting Group resulted in a June 2020 report containing 18 recommendations, including:
- Develop a formal housing strategy with clear program goals and objectives.
- Provide inspectors with computers and telephones. [Our italics.]
- Engage in regular performance reviews/check-ins with staff.
- Conduct regular department meetings.
- Require appropriate training and certifications for all housing inspectors.
Novak urged the city to activate CitizenServe code enforcement software (obtained through the First Suburbs Consortium in 2018) for more-efficient operations. In January 2021 the city manager reported to council that this upgrade is at last in progress.
Finally, Novak stated, the department should stop awarding bonuses to staff based on how many inspections they conduct over the course of a year, which prioritizes quantity over quality.
These are common-sense observations and suggestions. Why would our city have to hire an outside consultant to make them? And what has come of it?
Other than CitizenServe, we have yet to see evidence that the department has implemented Novak’s recommendations. We also have yet to see, after eight months, any council member ask for a progress report.
In Cleveland Heights, past, present and future, beautiful homes really are our economy. While strengthening the tax base with thoughtful commercial development is a worthwhile pursuit, housing an eclectic mix of families, young working people, empty-nesters and retirees will always be this city’s stock in trade.
We advocate bringing the building department back in-house at the earliest opportunity, to work cooperatively with a re-vamped and revived housing department. With the right leadership, that combination could once again make Cleveland Heights a model for other communities.
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.