Rental Housing Safety

Every year the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ranks Athens County as having the absolute worst housing problems in the entire state of Ohio — and by a longshot — due to the unusually high costs and unusually low quality of our local housing stock, and coupled with the fact that Athens County also has the highest income inequality in all of Ohio and some of the worst poverty.

In the City of Athens, the situation is especially bad for renters due to the combination of a weak housing code and its even weaker enforcement. And student renters –due to their inexperience and transience– are particularly vulnerable to being exploited by predatory landlords.

The Carriage Hill/ Campus Heights Apartment Fire of 2017 (which is still making headlines nearly 5 years later as the subject of a class action lawsuit) is a good example of how the city’s negligent approach to code enforcement endangers the lives of tenants. In that case, Code Enforcement had inspected the apartments on January 30, 2017 and cited the landlord for multiple faulty smoke detectors and at least 1 expired fire extinguisher. But, as is common practice, the city did not schedule a follow-up inspection to see if these serious safety hazards had been corrected until nearly 1 month later on February 27, 2017. That follow-up inspection never occurred, because the apartments in question burned down one day earlier on February 26, 2017. 41 tenants lost their homes, and they very easily could have lost their lives.

As we all know, if you’ve got an expired parking meter, the city doesn’t give you two months to come up with a quarter before issuing you a fine. If APD pulls you over for speeding, the city doesn’t give you two months to slow down before issuing you a ticket.

But if you’re a landlord and code inspectors find you’re violating the city housing code like the Carriage Hill landlord, the city gives you 30 days to fix the problem before checking on you again. And then the city gives you another 30 days before referring your case to the city law office, which may or may not decide to charge you at that point. Thus the city gives landlords a total of 60 days to correct unsafe conditions before the landlord runs any risk of being fined. (See Athens City Code 29.02.03 (D) )Meanwhile, the city expects tenants to continue paying rent for the privilege of living in unsafe, substandard housing that the city knows is not up to code.

That is the unparalleled preferential treatment our city currently gives to landlords. It tells you whose side the city is on, and why our housing problems are so bad.

I’ve been working to improve local rental housing conditions for years now. To call it an uphill battle would be the understatement of the century.

When I first ran for office two years ago, I made improving rental housing conditions the top priority of my campaign. That year, 2019, I ran unsuccessfully against incumbent Democratic mayor of Athens Steve Patterson, who is backed by some of our area’s biggest landlords –including Robert Leslie Cornwell, John Wharton, Demetrios Prokos and Ann Moneypenny– as well as 17-year Chair of the Athens County Republican Party Pete Couladis. The Democrat Patterson also boasted that he was the Republican mayor of choice beginning at the 28:10 mark of a 2019 episode of The Post’s “Swing State of Mind” podcast.

In my 2019 race against Patterson, the centerpiece of my platform was “Operation Slumlord Smackdown” — a multi-faceted plan to improve living conditions for the 80% of city residents who reside in rental housing by strengthening our housing code and its enforcement. Among other things, I argued OSS was necessary to prevent future disasters like the Carriage Hill / Campus Heights Apartment Fire.

In 2019 I also began pointing out that the deplorable state of local rental housing and the inadequacy of city housing code enforcement was likely due to the fact that, despite 80% of city residents being renters, every single city officeholder was a homeowner, and two members of Athens City Council (as well as several county officeholders) were landlords. In fact, in 2019 it had been more than a decade since even one renter had been on Council, and the average age of a councilmember was 54.

Two other 2019 candidates agreed with me and endorsed Operation Slumlord Smackdown — first Ellie Hamrick and then Chris Monday. Both of them were running for Council as independents that year, and like me they were both renters. They too denounced the absence of renters on Council, and Hamrick endorsed me in the mayoral race.

How did city officials react?

Mayor Patterson’s first response to OSS was to lie about the number of rental housing inspectors and to lie about the number of annual rental housing inspections. With 6 rental housing inspectors (Patterson soon upped his claimed number to 7) conducting 5,625 inspections per year, the mayor said the city was perfectly capable of enforcing its housing code. But reality was quite different. The city website, Code Enforcement’s annual reports, and the city’s rental housing inspection schedules all showed that the city only employed 4 rental housing inspectors, 3 of whom performed inspections while the 4th did paperwork. And these 3-4 inspectors were responsible for conducting, not 5,625 inspections per year, but 10,000 rental housing inspections in 2017 and nearly 8,000 such inspections in 2018. (Note: For the past year, Patterson’s administration let the number of rental housing inspectors drop even lower, to just 3, rather than the 4 employed in 2019.)

In other words, to portray Code Enforcement as adequately staffed, Mayor Patterson simply doubled the number of actual inspectors and halved the number of actual inspections. Thus he claimed twice number of inspectors actually employed by the city were responsible for half the actual workload of annual inspections. And that level of staffing would have been adequate, were it actually true.

Patterson began making these false claims in a March 6 Athens News article. He continued making them in a March 31 Athens News article after I used city records to expose his claims as bogus. At that point he even falsely claimed the 2018 Code Enforcement annual report proved his numbers were correct when in fact it proved my numbers were correct. (And keep in mind, Code Enforcement is literally part of the mayor’s administration over which he has direct oversight. So presumably he knows how many people work their and what the agency’s reports say.)

Finally, after the Athens News at long last fact-checked the mayor for an August 28, 2019 article, the mayor retracted his false claim about the number of inspectors and admitted there were only 4, not 7. He never retracted his equally false claim about the number of inspections.

As the Athens News reported,

Patterson responded to a long-simmering point of contention that Krane has raised with him: the number of code officers who actually perform rental inspections in Athens.

Patterson previously has stated that the city had six people performing those inspections, then corrected himself to say there were seven, including the city’s three code enforcement officers, its interim code director (Lance Allison), and its two solid-waste inspectors.

Krane has called that a “lie,” pointing to multiple pieces of evidence showing that only four people conduct those inspections.

Allison in an interview in early August and the city code office’s annual report both confirm that only four people have conducted those rental inspections in recent years (the three code officers and Allison).

Patterson this week conceded that the solid-waste inspectors are “not doing rental inspections,” but said that they do go out in the neighborhoods and identify things that are potential code violations or health risks.

“They’re not doing rental inspections, but they’re certainly inspecting properties,” Patterson said.

The Athens News again addressed this issue in its September 25 coverage of a candidate forum with Patterson and me.

Krane attacked Patterson in his closing statement for “spreading misinformation” earlier in the campaign cycle, highlighting the mayor telling The NEWS that the city’s Code Enforcement Office has six staffers conducting rental inspections, then upping that number to seven in a separate statement when asked about it. The city’s then-Interim Code Enforcement Director Lance Allison over the summer told The NEWS that only four code officers perform rental housing inspections (which Krane correctly stated previously).

As I pointed out at the time, the mayor’s lies about code enforcement were particularly troubling since they seemed to be part of a larger pattern. In 2012, the mayor had been censured by a university ethics committee after it was discovered he had credited himself with two publications that didn’t actually exist when he applied for tenure in his former career as a psychology professor.

As the Athens News reported of the ethics committee,

Its report had stern words for Patterson…

The report said the committee members “have not been given sufficient evidence that either of these two papers ever existed,” and that Patterson has failed to provide anything such as communications with his co-authors, a copy of the manuscripts, or an acceptance letter from a journal.

The committee members “were ultimately skeptical,” the report said, “that, at such a critical moment in his professional life, with tenure on the line, Dr. Patterson had such a tenuous grasp of his own publication record.” It added, though, that “the trail of evidence at this late date precludes any definitive judgment about Dr. Patterson’s intent to deliberately falsify his record.”

The committee also expressed some “misgivings” about the psychology department, for failing to catch the phantom articles in the tenure process.

Faced with the committee’s findings, DeWald wrote to Benoit in December 2011 that Patterson’s “continued inability to show any evidence regarding the existence of these articles is disturbing,” and leads him to “amend my previous beliefs and conclusions concerning Dr. Patterson’s record.”

Benoit issued the formal censure in February 2012.

But the mayor’s lies about code enforcement weren’t his only defense against housing reform. Patterson also simply denied the existence of serious problems with rental housing quality and safety, and accused Ellie Hamrick and I of making up problems that didn’t exist for our own political gain. (Note: Patterson had a similar response to discovery of his fake publication credits — he characterized the former colleague who revealed the mayor’s false claims as “vindictive” and motivated by a personal vendetta.) As The Post reported on September 22, 2019,

Patterson said that Krane and Hamrick are politicizing an issue that he doesn’t see as a huge problem in Athens. He said his administration and the Athens City Council hear more about e-scooters and potholes than tenant complaints.

Patterson also said that most landlords are not bad actors and generally comply with city code, fixing most existing violations before getting charged.

Yet once more city records refuted the mayor’s claim. The Code Enforcement office’s 2018 annual report documents the office receiving “over 605 complaints” which “ranged from rental” to other issues. And of the 5,625 regularly scheduled annual rental housing inspections, Code had to conduct 1,986 rental re-inspections to verify correction of previously identified violations, which suggests more than 1/3 of city rental properties failed their rental inspections in 2018 alone.

And in the same article, The Post reported,

Patterson said his campaign receives donations from multiple sources, including many renters around the city.

But again reality didn’t seem to match the mayor’s claims. After examining Patterson’s campaign finance reports from his 2015 and 2019 mayoral campaigns, I only have been able to verify one donor who at the time of their donation was a renter — former OU College Democrats member Zach Reizes, who donated a total of $18 to Patterson in 2019.

In comparison, Patterson’s campaign finance reports show he received $500 from landlord Robert Leslie Cornwell, $500 from landlord Ann Moneypenny, $500 from landlord Felix Gagliano, $250 from landlord John Wharton, $250 from landlord (and Athens County Treasurer) Ric Wasserman, $100 from landlord Kevin Martin, $50 from landlord (and Athens City Council member) Sarah Grace, $300 from real estate agent Don Linder, and $100 from real estate developer Bruce Wentworth.

Landlord Demetrios Prokos did not donate to Patterson, but instead put up campaign signs for him, as did local Republican Party chair Pete Couladis.

The rest of Patterson’s donations appear to have come from homeowners. If I was unable to identify one or two tenants among Patterson’s donors (and I may have missed just as many smaller landlords), clearly his contributions from tenants still pale in comparison to what Patterson had received from landlords, including our city’s biggest landlords.

Yet in 2019 not a single Democratic officeholder criticized the mayor’s lies or voiced disagreement with the mayor’s assessment of rental housing and code enforcement. We three new independent candidates — Ellie, Chris and I — were completely on our own. Thus in 2019 the Athens County Democratic Party was first and foremost a bi-partisan coalition of landlords who opposed rental housing safety regulation, and the party was fine with officeholders lying to prevent housing policy reform.

But that began to change in 2021, when Democrat Ben Ziff –a renter in his 30s– announced he was running for Council. Immediately upon announcing his campaign, Ziff endorsed my fundamental assessment of rental housing conditions and code enforcement. The Athens News reported on January 28 that

As a renter and service industry worker, Ziff maintained that he could appeal to the city’s working class — many of whom are young and similarly situated — with a pro-tenant ethos that’s not represented within the current body. Most City Council members are middle-aged or older and are homeowners. Some are even landlords.

Ziff decried the state of housing in Athens, saying that city enforcement of code is woefully inadequate, a stance many unsuccessful Independent candidates in the 2019 election took.

And instead of Patterson and the rest of the local establishment denouncing Ziff as making all this up to advance his political career, the mayor announced his support for Ziff on Facebook and Patterson and his close ally then-councilmember Beth Clodfelter helped Ben set up his campaign.

According to the Athens News,

At-large Democrat Beth Clodfelter explained to [Ziff] how to utilize the Athens County Board of Elections. Mayor Steve Patterson, who Ziff has served coffee to in the past, helped him understand how to create a bank account for campaign donations and emphasized the need for a treasurer.

The rest of the local Democratic establishment also embraced Ziff, despite his agreement with me. And after landlord Pete Kotses resigned from Council halfway through his term this February, the Athens City Democratic Party Central Committee appointed Ziff to replace Kotses on Council with the stated blessing of county party chair John Haseley.

According to the Athens News,

On the city’s Democratic Central Committee were incumbent Councilmembers Sarah Grace, Beth Clodfelter and Chris Fahl, among other local leaders. Athens County Democratic Party Chair John Haseley, who’s not a committee member, interjected during the meeting to express his support for Ziff.

Similarly, when Democrat and leading opponent of local police reform Beth Clodfelter resigned from Council in May, the Central Committee appointed another renter in is 30s, Micah McCarey, to replace her. (Note: McCarey also presented an opinion on local policing diametrically opposed to Clodfelter’s. According to the Athens News, “Reforming law enforcement with diversity in mind is also key for McCarey. He said the city still has a long way to go before policing arrives at a place deemed acceptable.”)

In addition, Democrat Alan Swank, who defeated 12-year incumbent councilmember Chris Fahl is this year’s Democratic primary by a whopping 30-point margin (and who is now guaranteed a seat on Council beginning in January since he faces no opponent in the November general election), also was elected partly on a housing justice platform that included a call for better code enforcement to help increase quality, affordable housing.

So finally we’re at a point now where the Democratic establishment can no longer deny the existence of our community’s severe rental housing problems — problems made worse by the lack of adequate Code Enforcement.

It took my 2019 mayoral campaign and my work with United Athens County Tenants ever since then to get city officials to stop denying our housing problems.

My 2019 mayoral campaign and subsequent work with United Athens County Tenants also successfully pushed Athens City Council to pass its two of its most pro-tenant ordinances in decades. In response to my 2019 mayoral campaign, Council that year voted to increase penalties for repeat offender landlords, and in response to my 2019 and 2021 campaigns and UACT’s work in 2020 and 2021, Council outlawed source of income discrimination against tenants receiving public rent assistance such as HUD housing choice vouchers.

But there is still so much more work to be done. As my colleague at United Athens County Tenants, Reagan Neviska, wrote in her June 30 letter to The Post,

Like Reynoldsburg, we can require landlords to let tenants split security deposits into more manageable monthly installments (“renter’s choice”). Like Dayton, Lakewood, Toledo and Yellow Springs, we can allow tenants to stop eviction proceedings when they can pay back rent and reasonable late fees (“pay to stay”). We can correct notoriously lax enforcement of local housing safety regulations, make it harder for unscrupulous landlords to steal security deposits, make it harder to disregard tenants’ privacy by entering their homes without proper advance notice and more!

Recent victories for tenants make it clear — our community can change for the better!

If elected to Council, I’ll do more than pay lip service to housing justice issues. I will continue to fight to create a more just community for the 80% of city residents who rent by introducing legislation that

  • implements “pay to stay” and ‘renter’s choice” as described above;
  • doubles the number of rental housing code inspectors (to make the mayor’s lies a reality) and overhauls the inspection process;
  • stops the city from continuing to issue rental permits to scofflaw landlords who consistently fail to keep their properties in compliance with our housing code;
  • makes unauthorized entry by landlords into tenant’s homes without proper advance notice and the wrongful withholding of tenants’ security deposits violations of our city housing code;
  • creates insulation and weatherization requirements in rental housing in order to lower tenant utility bills, improve tenant comfort and public health, and shrink our city’s carbon footprint all at the same time;
  • ends the current city practice of forcing tenants to pay to endure unsafe housing conditions for 60 days after the city discovers code violations before landlords face any penalties, and replace it with an enforcement process that immediately fines landlords for violations upon their discovery and that requires landlords to pay to re-house tenants in alternative, safe, code-compliant housing while unsafe conditions at the original property are corrected.

To learn more about my views on rental housing issues, see my response to the United Athens County Tenants candidate questionnaire.

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Paid for by The Committee to Elect Damon Krane