Friday, July 28, 2017

Low-Income Cincinnati Homeowners Make For Easy Targets For City Code Enforcement Inspectors Using Threats Of Criminal Prosecution For Inability To Make Unaffordable Home Repairs

In Cincinnati, Ohio, City Beat reports:
  • As it stands, Cincinnati residents can face steep consequences — big fines and even monitoring devices or stays in the Hamilton County jail — if their houses aren’t in order.

    Multiple Cincinnati residents face serious criminal penalties for property-related problems even as city officials say they’re trying to find solutions to ease the burdens posed by home repairs facing low-and moderate-income homeowners.

    “The people that we are continuing to hear from are people who won’t qualify for a loan,” Councilman Wendell Young says. “So if a lending institution isn’t likely to give them money, but they need repairs to stay in their homes, then I’m concerned about what happens to that group of people.”

    Young and other Cincinnati City Council members have called for boosts to nonprofit programs that help low-income people make home repairs. Mayor John Cranley has asked the city to pursue code orders as civil cases, not criminal ones. And a partnership between the city, a nonprofit and area banks looks to extend loans and grants to low-and moderate-income homeowners.

    But while the city works on solutions, some residents still face the prospect of going to jail for code violations.

    On a recent Monday, Earl Starr stood outside his house in Evanston, trimming bushes and sweeping up yard waste. On his right ankle, he wore an electronic monitoring device — one of the conditions of his ongoing fight with the city over his code orders.

    After a protracted wrestling match with the courts and the city’s Department of Building and Inspections, Starr faces six months in jail if he doesn’t resolve his code issues in the next month. He’s permitted to be away from home up to 60 hours a week to work as a barber and to take his kids to school and daycare, but otherwise must stay at his house.

    In early 2015, Starr purchased his two-family house in Evanston for about $8,000. His son’s mother was dying of cancer, and Starr, who was bouncing back from a stint in prison and who has engineering knowledge from eight years working at Hamilton’s Smart Papers, thought he could fix it for his son and himself to live in. It had standing code orders related to the structure’s windows, chimney and downspouts, which Starr says he was unaware of.

    Starr began fixing up the house and soon moved into its second and third floors, working on the first so that it could someday generate rental income. After the city informed him the house needed repairs due to the code orders, Starr began a series of back-and-forth exchanges with the city’s Department of Building and Inspections.

    Starr says during this stretch of time last year, building inspector Kevin Rhodes failed to show up for scheduled inspections multiple times and that he was unable to get documentation related to the orders he needed to comply with.

    The city acknowledges that Rhodes missed one inspection due to an urgent issue elsewhere, but says that Starr has missed several himself. Department of Building and Inspections director Art Dahlberg says that Starr "ignored" attempts to work with him. Starr denies this.

    Eventually, Starr had his chimney tuck-pointed and got his roof and downspouts up to code. He was also able to get Cincinnati nonprofit the Home Ownership Center ["HOC"] to replace his windows.

    He thought he was all squared away, he says. But inspectors wrote up more orders related to permits for the house’s plumbing, HVAC units, an uninstalled Jacuzzi the previous owners left on the third floor and other issues.

    You’re putting so many violations on me, and I have to call contractors when I can’t afford to,” Starr says. “And then I’ll lose my house. I’m scared. I’ve got a kid to worry about, and my own future.”

    CityBeat first reported in early March on difficulties some Mount Auburn residents faced with code compliance following the city’s Neighborhood Enhancement Program.
    In the meantime, HOC is looking to help Starr secure ways to fix up the rest of the orders on his house. That could be vital — though after what he’s been through, Starr says he’s waiting before he gets too optimistic.

    “I’m scared,” he says. “I bought this with my own hard work and money, and I put two years of work into it. My house and my life are at stake here.”
For more, see As some Cincinnati residents face jail time over home repairs, the city searches for a fix (Wendell Young and other Cincinnati City Council members have called for boosts to nonprofit programs that help low-income people make home repairs).

See also, A neighborhood revitalization program in Mount Auburn raises questions about equity in city code enforcement (The Neighborhood Enhancement Program, which was supposed to help clean up the neighborhood, left residents deluged with code violations).