Housing inspection and code enforcement are critical

The 2020 survey of Cleveland Heights residents found that, of all the services provided by City Hall, respondents were least satisfied with "enforcement of city codes and ordinances." (Safety services topped the ranking.) I wasn't surveyed, but I agree. Many, many properties do not look good. That's the number one issue for candidates.

It seems that past officials, over decades, never really appreciated just how critical inspection and enforcement are once structures lose their newness. Cleveland Heights is the third-oldest suburb in the county (behind East Cleveland and Lakewood). Half of our homes are 100 years old. Because officials failed to address adequately what was becoming old housing, shoddiness became an acceptable standard.

The worse the condition of housing, the more negatives occur. Most of the issues that disturb the community (violent incidents, gunfire, speeders, disruptions on streets and in schools, high taxes) stem from the failure to control the condition of homes and apartments. As shoddiness became acceptable and the number of poorly maintained properties increased, so, too, did the odds that such conditions would attract owners and renters (and their guests) who would be troublesome—and, in some instances, downright dangerous.

Long-term change in property value is a telling measure of a community’s situation. Between 1960 and 2018, the inflation-adjusted value of residential property in Cleveland Heights declined 34%. (East Cleveland declined 85%; Lakewood increased 20%.) That enormous loss in value—a billion dollars of tax base, gone!—forced the high property tax rate that now bedevils the city. 

Most property owners are responsible and do what is needed. Some are responsible but lack the means to do what's needed. Others are both irresponsible and means-lacking. Poorly maintained properties owned by people who lack the income to do what is needed is the city's most serious problem. (It's easy to get financing to buy an old house that one cannot afford to maintain properly, let alone upgrade.) There is no ready solution. But lax inspection and enforcement only make matters worse.

The remaining owners have the means but not the will to do what’s needed. If not corrected by inspection and enforcement, the negative conditions they create repulse people who value positive conditions, which opens the door for more negatives. 

The situation is dire, but not hopeless. The way forward requires commitment by the new mayor and council to elevate "enforcement of city codes and ordinances" to the top in resident satisfaction. The objective is to establish clearly and unequivocally that if one owns, or considers owning, property in Cleveland Heights, he/she must be willing and able to properly maintain its condition and appearance; and that inspection and enforcement will be diligently employed to secure compliance. It’s a severe stance that goes against the community’s tolerance of differences, but that value does not apply to ill-kept real estate.   

It will take years and perseverance to get the needed standards and mindset ingrained. Those who oppose inspection in principle (some in the real estate industry) likely will resist. Some will feel unjustly put upon or discriminated against.

But the choice is clear: either begin to come to grips with the situation, and in time succeed, or continue with the spread of deterioration and economic erosion. The initial focus possibly should be on rental properties (numerous rented single-family homes are a sure sign of something wrong). That would give owner-occupants time to adjust to new standards and requirements.           

Thomas Bier

Thomas Bier has lived in Cleveland Heights since 1974.

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Volume 14, Issue 5, Posted 10:36 AM, 04.30.2021