Mold. Holes in the ceiling where rain leaks through. Broken windows. Fire alarms missing or broken. Security deposits forfeited for no cited reason. Landlords or property maintenance staff barging in without 24-hour prior notice.
That’s just a small list of common complaints about rental housing in Athens, most of it pulled from complaints filed with the Athens Code Enforcement Office over the last few years or posted in a recent thread online on the Athens Ohio Reddit.
Because the vast majority of the housing stock in Athens comprises rental units, and because of the quick turnover of Ohio University students in that housing each year, some would argue that it’s only natural for complaints like those outlined above to occur yearly. However, two candidates for city office in Athens this year are arguing that Athens is a “paradise” for “predatory slumlords.”
That language is directly from Athens mayoral candidate Damon Krane, an independent who identifies as democratic socialist, who is running against incumbent Mayor Steve Patterson, a Democrat. Ellie Hamrick, a socialist candidate running as an independent for an Athens City Council at-large seat, similarly has charged that Athens city government has done little to curb bad behavior by landlords, and actively allows that behavior to flourish.
Another progressive independent at-large City Council candidate, Chris Monday, is also running on a pro-tenant platform.
With pressure mounting from these candidates, Athens City Council’s current body is considering a change to the city’s code – introduced earlier this month – to allow tougher penalties against landlords who do not fix cited issues within the allotted time the city gives them to address code violations on their properties.
COLLEGE-TOWN ATHENS HAD roughly 5,638 rental housing units as of Aug. 1, according to an estimate compiled by the Athens Code Enforcement Office. (According to 2013-2017 American Community Survey five-year estimates, Athens has 7,835 total housing units, both rental and owner-occupied).
That’s a very high proportion of the city’s population occupied by rental housing. The city under Mayor Patterson and former Code Director Rick Sirois increased its rental inspection frequency to one per rental unit per year (it previously was every 18-24 months), according to the Code Enforcement Office’s 2018 Annual Report. However, that focus on rental inspections plus “limited staffing results in the Office of Code Enforcement operations being complaint driven,” the report reads.
While the code office’s records of complaints about code violations is significantly up in recent years – 605 in 2018 compared to just 38 in 2016 – that’s largely the result of a new citizen complaint online application being used by the city called Public Stuff. The code office in its annual report boasted that those complaints are usually “responded to within 12-24 hours with a 96% correction rate.”
However, according to copies of some of those complaints obtained by The NEWS from the code office, some were filed by tenants only after weeks or even months of inactivity despite complaints to their landlords.
One complaint from 2018, for example, alleges that one tenant complained to his landlord – Demetrios Prokos – on three separate occasions over a month-and-a-half time period about mold in his bathtub and a broken toilet seat, but nothing had been done.
Prokos said in an interview Tuesday that while he couldn’t speak directly to that situation, complaints are just that – complaints. He said that he operates 600 rental units in the city, and noted that many students are not educated about how to be good tenants. Prokos said he’s had students totally trash his rental properties, including holes punched in walls, although he stressed that he does have many good tenants who don’t damage their units. He also insisted that his business responds “right away” to code complaints.
“There are some people that, they need city code (complaints) before they even respond on anything, and that isn’t fair; we spend a lot more time and effort to correct properties’ issues right away,” he said.
Prokos said that in his opinion, the city’s rental-housing code is pretty stringent – tougher than in other places where he owns rental properties – but added that he thinks the code is “very fair,” and added that the city code office is fair and “very professional” in its enforcement of the code.
KRANE SAID IN THE INTERVIEW earlier this summer that as a renter in Athens for roughly 13 years, in a city with a huge percent of its population living in rental units, he believes the city’s Code Enforcement office “does not adequately enforce safety standards” in those rentals.
“That can be everything from faulty fire safety and prevention equipment to mold issues to access for rodent infestations to improper and dangerous heating equipment like unvented gas furnaces, which I’ve had in two apartments where I’ve lived,” he said.
That’s why Krane – with substantial input from City Council candidate Hamrick – has proposed a multi-step program called “Operation Slumlord Smackdown,” a plan that proposes to:
• Strengthen the city’s rental-housing code and crack down on common practices including entry without 24-hour notice, or the taking of security deposits without appropriate documentation.
• Increase rental-permit fees and fines paid by landlords for violating code.
• Add four more code-enforcement officers to conduct rental inspections.
• Carry out more thorough rental inspections.
• Ensure correction of code violations quickly.
• Digitize all code office records and make them available for free online.
• Enact a rent-control policy to keep housing prices locked in for several years.
• Educate tenants on their rights, among other changes.
Hamrick charged in an interview earlier this month that renters in the city have “no representation” on City Council, noting that at least two current council members are landlords (Sarah Grace and Pete Kotses). Little has been done over the years to curb the proliferation of low-quality housing being rented at “very high costs,” she maintained.
“A lot of people are getting priced out of the city completely,” Hamrick said. “I work at Casa Nueva, and a lot of my coworkers who are working full-time – some of them even multiple jobs – can’t afford to live in the Athens city limits at all.”
ONE OF THE BIGGER issues discussed by Krane was that the city gives landlords a significant amount of time to correct issues while in the meantime tenants are forced to deal with the code violations.
Currently, according to separate interviews with Athens Law Director Lisa Eliason and then-interim Code Enforcement Director Lance Allison conducted earlier this month, the process works this way:
• A rental inspection is conducted, or a complaint is filed with the code office about a city code violation in a rental property. If a violation is found after the rental inspection, or found after the code office visits the property upon receiving the complaint, a notice of violation is sent to the property owner. The owner has 30 days to correct the issue, though sometimes it can be longer, upwards to 40 days, depending on the code office’s inspection schedule, according to Allison. He did say that if something is a “critical violation” – like no running water or no heat in the middle of the winter –a “72-hour window” to correct is given landlords, although The NEWS was unable to confirm how often this actually happens.
• If the issue is not found to be corrected by the code office after 30 days, the office issues an order to comply via certified letter to the property owner. The rental owner then has 15 days after receipt of that letter to correct the issue.
• If the issue is still not corrected after that 15-day period, the code office turns the issue over to the city law director’s office to file charges of “failure to comply” under Athens city code. The law director’s office has up to 30 days to file those charges. The case then goes through Athens County Municipal Court. If a landlord is found guilty of the non-compliance violation, it’s a minor misdemeanor with a $100 associated fine.
While each day the rental owner continues to violate that section of city code is supposed to constitute a “separate and complete offense,” meaning multiple instances of that fine and misdemeanor charge, according to city code, The NEWS has been unable to find any example of that happening.
Eliason acknowledged that her office hasn’t been filing additional charges based on the days of each violation because it’s “additional paperwork for the court.
“We also always thought that the judge would run the fines concurrently anyway,” she said. “The purpose (of the code) is to get them (landlords) to comply and make the repair.”
If the code office finds another violation in the home, the entire process starts all over again, Eliason said.
THE PROPOSED ORDINANCE before Athens City Council attempts to change the charge and fee structure of that section of city code. Under the proposed change, the initial misdemeanor/$100 fine structure would be the same as it is now. However, the next time somebody is found guilty of the charge in a two-year period, it becomes a fourth-degree misdemeanor with a $250 fine and the potential for 30 days in jail; the next offense becomes a third-degree misdemeanor with a $500 fine and 60 days in jail, continuing to escalate from there.
Eliason said this week that this change is meant especially to crack down on absentee or out-of-town landlords who in the past have simply pleaded guilty to the minor misdemeanor, absorbed the $100 fine, and continue to not fix the code violations on their property.
The law director provided The NEWS with a copy of every failure-to-comply charge filed by her office over the last three years. Athens County Municipal Court provided The NEWS with a copy of the disposition of those 16 cases. Of them, four cases “did not have a code violation,” while multiple others were still “open cases,” according to the court (including several from as far back as 2015). In the rest of the cases, a few of the property owners simply pleaded guilty to the violation and paid the fine; at least three others had the charge dismissed because they had repaired the cited problem.
Athens City Council member Chris Fahl, during the meeting when the ordinance was introduced last week (Aug. 19), talked about the purpose of the changes.
“I think a lot of people think that landlords just get away with things… This will maybe wake up some of the people and some of the landlords in the city,” she said.
Fahl added that it’s a good idea for the city to digitize its code inspection and violation records and make them publicly available on the city’s website as a searchable database, although City Council member Jeffrey Risner voiced concerns about the cost of that process.
The main current way to access those records is to make a public-records request to the city Code Enforcement office, which many in the city – especially students – don’t know how to do, according to Fahl. Code office staff have told The NEWS that while most copies of code complaints filed with the city have been digitized going back to 2008, as well as rental property inspection reports, those files are all organized by property address number, so searching the records by property owner or company names can be difficult and time-consuming.
Fahl noted that there’s a major need for further education of new renters in the city of Athens, especially students.
Mayor Steve Patterson said in an interview this week that this change to city code is being proposed because the city’s only “tool” to ensure that property owners properly maintain their properties is the fine/charge structure mentioned above.
“It appears that there are some landlords out there (where) that’s an acceptable risk to go ahead and pay these $100 fines,” Patterson said. “We figured that one way to grab people’s attention is to change that fee structure.”
Patterson noted that this change also should help the city address “blighted” properties, including former rentals that have been left vacant or otherwise are poorly maintained by out-of-town or out-of-state landlords.
IN RESPONSE TO THIS ORDINANCE being introduced, Krane charged that it’s only being proposed because city candidates – he, Hamrick and Monday – have pushed the city on these issues.
“…That’s got our opponents scared to the point where they’re not just trying to co-opt our issues; they’re literally plagiarizing our ideas,” Krane said. “A graduated system of progressively more severe penalties for landlords’ housing code violations? Putting landlords’ violation records online to help tenants make better informed housing decisions? Gee, where have I heard that before?”
Patterson declined to respond to that assertion by Krane, other than citing his previous assertion – that the new ordinance is a result of the city wishing to address issues with blighted and poorly maintained properties.
“One of several reasons we’re doing this is because we’re recognizing that there’s likely going to be more vacant rental units as time goes on, and we don’t want to see those become blighted properties,” Patterson said.
The mayor did respond to Krane and Hamrick’s assertion that Athens is filled with “predatory slumlords.”
“I believe that we have a number of very responsible landlords out there, and that they’re not predatory,” Patterson said. “I’m sure that there are some in the city of Athens but by and large to couch every landlord in the city of Athens as being predatory is doing a disservice to a number of individuals who are running city-permitted rentals.”
Finally, 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.