Problem-solving court takes on housing violations
A property owner stands before me to be sentenced for failing to paint the garage of a rental property in Cleveland Heights. The owner has acknowledged they have not yet brought the property into compliance, but believes that if they have another 60 days, the work can be done. I sentence the owner, but rather than impose hefty fines or even jail time, I suspend most of those traditional penalties and instead impose community control, often called probation. If the owner fails to bring the property into compliance, or violates any other condition of community control, I can reevaluate and revise the original sentence.
This community control approach was first implemented by the late Judge Raymond L. Pianka in Cleveland Housing Court. He saw his role, and [that of] the housing court, as a problem-solving role, and our Cleveland Heights Municipal Court takes the same approach.
Our court emphasizes compliance with housing code requirements as the primary goal of criminal housing prosecution. Punishment alone does not always function as a deterrent, and our community is best served when properties are repaired and maintained.
Cleveland Heights' Housing and Law departments decide on cases to be brought before our court. As judge, I have no authority over a person or situation unless a case is properly filed and the court’s jurisdiction is invoked.
While our court has an interest in the building, health, and safety codes being followed, as with all criminal laws it is not within the authority of the court to encourage the city to commence any criminal proceedings. The city determines what limited enforcement resources to focus on “zombie” title properties, out-of-state investors, local landlords, and owner-occupied properties.
Once that discretion is exercised by the city and a criminal proceeding is commenced, the control of the case shifts from the prosecutor to the court.
If a person or entity refuses to appear once summoned, the court can and does issue warrants and hold them in contempt.
Upon finding guilt, it is my responsibility as judge to determine the appropriate sanction.
Recently, more than half of the cases filed by the city have been against individuals who both own and reside in the home. The city and court have worked together to implement a diversion program for these cases.
This program allows the owner-occupant to explore potential resources, like the Home Repair Resource Center, and, if they bring the property into compliance within a reasonable period, avoid a criminal conviction altogether.
For more complicated cases, and those cases where the property is not owner-occupied, the community control, with a requirement of repair and maintenance, is more appropriate.
Additional supervision is required to make sure those goals are met. Therefore, the court will soon hire its first-ever housing court specialist.
The specialist’s role will be to oversee community control obligations imposed on an offender. The specialist will offer assistance, identifying which repairs need to be addressed sooner than others, and identifying resources that may be available to the offender. The specialist will also bring the offender back before me when the offender does not comply with supervision requirements.
There will always be problem properties, and, even with the best intentions, the process of bringing a property into compliance is time-consuming. However, with continued improvements such as these, our court will continue to be a problem-solving court addressing the community's concerns.
If you are curious about what housing cases are and are not before our court, go to the Record Search tab at www.clevelandheightscourt.com, where you can search by name and case number, and by property address.
Judge J.J. Costello
J.J. Costello has been the Cleveland Heights Municipal Court Judge since 2018, overseeing all criminal, civil, eviction, housing, and small claims filings. He is a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident, and he and his wife, Alicia, are proudly raising their two sons here.