Some CH housing inspection headaches . . .
As volunteer columnists with busy lives, we can't often undertake extensive research, let alone far-reaching investigative journalism; thus, we forego addressing many interesting and important subjects. This month, however, our subject is Cleveland Heights housing inspections, about which seemingly everyone has opinions. We will describe some recent inspection issues, and encourage you to share your stories with us.
To be clear, we support rigorous code enforcement, which necessitates regular inspections. Sure, we gripe like anyone else when we encounter an especially picky inspector; but housing codes are a social good. When conscientiously applied they protect owners, renters and neighbors from unsafe conditions, and ensure the upkeep of our residential areas.
Cleveland Heights' code enforcement was once a model for other cities; however, the foreclosure crisis, compounded by understaffing, poor management, and ever-greater numbers of absentee investor-landlords, has hammered some areas of the city.
Mayor Kahlil Seren recently moved the city’s housing and building programs from the Public Safety Department to Planning and Development, headed by Eric Zamft. We hope this change amounts to more than just moving problems around.
One of us has recent experience with Inspectional Services. Deborah and her husband are owner-occupants of a side-by-side duplex. Following a Feb. 1, 2022, inspection, they received the expected report listing code violations to be corrected within 90 days. After that—nothing. The inspector told them that, due to snow cover, he would have to complete the exterior portion of the inspection later, but they were never contacted to schedule a follow-up appointment.
Their next housing-related communication was the annual November reminder to renew the Certificate of Occupancy for their rental unit. Upon logging into CitizenServe (the city's online housing portal) they found records of two re-inspections, and a citation for not making repairs, with the note, "10 Days Extension or Court." Not only were they unaware of any re-inspections, they also had no opportunity to show the inspector the finished interior repairs.
On Dec. 5, 2022, Cindie Carroll-Pankhurst, an owner-occupant and landlord, addressed a meeting of city council's Housing and Building Committee, complaining of a similar experience during the same time period. Housing staff claimed to have mailed her no fewer than 10 notices, none of which she received. Each re-inspection attempt logged in her file included the phrase, "Unable to contact owner."
Carroll-Pankhurst asked, at the meeting and in a subsequent e-mail to city officials, "What systems are in place to ensure accountability in Inspectional Services?" Shortly before we submitted this column, she had not received an answer, although she was granted a "reset" on her case, as was Deborah.
Both examples cited here involved the same inspector, prompting us to ask: Are there safeguards to ensure inspectors do not take shortcuts? How does the office document e-mail and postal communication with homeowners? How are those communications initiated? Are housing programs using CitizenServe software correctly and to its full capacity? Are all staff fully trained in its use?
We don't think these two cases are unique. They suggest a systemic problem, raising another question: Why are housing division problems with communications, record-keeping and follow-through chronic and persistent?
The number of Cleveland Heights landlords who reside in the city is small, and the number who actually live in a dwelling along with their tenants is even tinier. The worst problem properties are more likely to be owned by out-of-town investors; but landlords residing in the city are easier to find.
How are your dealings with Inspectional Services? Good, bad, indifferent, we'd like to hear about them. Send your stories to us in confidence at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are writers, editors and longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at email@example.com.