Sunday, January 11, 2004

New hammer gets buildings fixed

Judge makes landlords notice

By Sharon Coolidge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Thomas Wright has been brought into housing court for many violations at his home.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
For years, Cincinnati's fire inspectors told the owners of the Mercantile buildings in downtown Cincinnati to fix two elevators deemed out of date and dangerous.

The owners ignored the requests, opting not to spend the millions of dollars necessary to fix the dilapidated elevators.

The case was one of the first to go before a judge last year in Hamilton County's newly established housing court. And with the threat of jail time and daily fines looming, work is now under way on the elevators.

For years, community groups had clamored for a crackdown on negligent landlords whose eyesore properties ruin real estate values, scare off investors or harbor crack cocaine houses.

Now one day a week, property owners - most of whom have ignored repeated requests to fix their properties - are brought before the housing court judge. If they ignore the judge, they could go to jail and rack up daily fines.

In its first year, the court has reviewed 80 cases, ending in 37 convictions with about six property owners spending some time in jail, according to the building department and prosecutors.

"We made great strides this year," said Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Guy Guckenberger, who presides over the court.

Eighty cases came through Hamilton County's first housing docket last year:
Building code violations: 56
Failure to comply with code orders: 5
Premises conditions: 5
Faulty elevators: 3
Food service without a license: 2
Miscellaneous: 9
Source: The Hamilton County Clerk of Courts

A workshop on property maintenance is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 23 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Drake Conference Center rooms F & G at 151 Galbraith Road.

A panel of experts will present an overview of blighted buildings and what is being done about them. Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Guy Guckenberger, who oversees housing court, will discuss the legal environment, what codes can do for the community and what other communities are doing to stop blight.

Contact Karen Ambrosius at 949-4460 to sign up for the meeting.

In an older city with hundreds of century-old buildings, the stakes are high.

Hundreds of buildings throughout the city have fallen into disrepair or been left abandoned. Those left vacant are sometimes ravaged by vandals, overrun by trespassers or become crime dens, said William Langevin, director of Cincinnati's Building and Inspection Department.

In the late 1990s, Langevin said, there were about 900 abandoned buildings in the city. The declining economy of the last few years has doubled that number, he said.

"Some of them are so far beyond repair, that economically they're not worth fixing up," he said.

But there are hundreds that are.

Even before the county's housing court started a year ago, there were avenues and legal means meant to hold absentee landlords and negligent owners accountable.

But often those processes were cumbersome and time-consuming, officials said.

"The properties would get worse before judges would use their power to get the work done," said Charlie Rubenstein, Cincinnati's chief deputy prosecutor.

The courts didn't take the cases seriously and the landlords knew it, Rubenstein said.

In some cases, the fines were less than the cost of the repairs.

"For many property owners it's just the cost of doing business," Langevin said.

Now, says Rubenstein , the word is out. "Judge Guckenberger has the background as a former city councilman and county commissioner to handle the cases, and he's willing to drop the hammer when necessary. Landlords and their attorneys are catching on."

Step by step

In 2003, Hamilton County tried the court approach as a pilot project. The court has been extended to hear cases through 2004.

It takes a lot to wind up in the court:

• First a repair order is sent to the owner and posted on the property. Typically the owner is given 30 to 90 days to bring the property up to code.

• If there are no results, a civil citation is issued from the office of administrative hearings under the city's law department.

For example, people who set out garbage incorrectly could be fined $100. People who violate the housing code can be fined up to $500 for a first offense, and $1,000 for a second offense.

A month in jail

Thomas Wright, a 56-year-old North Fairmount homeowner who has been cited into housing court on building code violations, likened the enforcement to somebody else telling him how to live in the home he bought 20 years ago.

The house needs a new roof, new gutters and downspouts and the chimney is crumbling. There are inoperable cars in the front yard, and trash and debris are strewn across the property, a court complaint said.

But Wright said he earns his living in the junk recycling business.

Wright said he's been cited so many times - at least 10 - since 1987, he's lost count. He's spent a month in jail, and is on probation.

"They drive past other problems to get to me," Wright said. "Just because somebody called on me."

Wright said his lawyer is getting frustrated, too.

"He says if you keep doing the same thing over and over, you can't expect the results to be different," Wright said. "I know I have to be more community-minded."

Wright is expected in back in housing court Jan. 26.

By then, he said, he hopes to have as much cleaned up as he can.


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