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.

click to enlarge Earl Starr wears an electronic monitoring device and faces jail time due to repair orders - on his home in Evanston. - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
Earl Starr wears an electronic monitoring device and faces jail time due to repair orders on his home in Evanston.
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 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. 

That neighborhood saw more than 1,400 code orders issued last year. Eighty percent went to out-of-town landlords, but others went to low-income homeowners. Some of those orders were for serious structural issues, while others tagged flaking paint on porches and missing stair railings on sets of a few steps leading up into front yards. 

Due in part to the deep socioeconomic divisions in Cincinnati and many other cities, code enforcement often falls heavily on neighborhoods where many low-income, predominantly black residents live. Neighborhoods like Mount Auburn, Evanston and others receive hundreds of code violations a year, while similarly sized, higher-income neighborhoods receive far fewer. Hyde Park, for example, a neighborhood of 13,000 people with a median household income of almost $75,000 a year, saw only 169 code orders last year. Mount Lookout, another wealthy neighborhood similar in size to Mount Auburn, got 111. 

In the worst-case scenarios, those orders can escalate to the point where residents and other small-time property owners end up owing thousands of dollars and face foreclosure or jail time.

In 2014, the city cited Stanford Poole, a retired Cincinnati firefighter who owns two small rental properties on Rice Street in Mount Auburn, for siding damage on one of his houses and issues with a porch on another. Court documents reveal Poole went around with the city several times on those properties, eventually getting a year’s probation and a $3,500 fine. He fixed the siding issue, but never resolved the issue with the porch to the satisfaction of inspectors. A Hamilton County Sheriff’s deputy picked the Madisonville resident up on Feb. 14, and he spent the night in jail before posting bond.

Since the dustup over code orders in Mount Auburn, more high-profile cases involving code compliance have popped up. Those include Starr’s situation, first reported by WCPO earlier this month, and the May 9 arrest of Rev. Peterson Mingo, a well-known faith leader and Cincinnati Human Relations Commission employee. Mingo was briefly arrested after a court hearing over ordered repairs to a retaining wall at his property in Evanston. Mingo had been going back and forth with the city over those repairs, which could cost up to $10,000, since late 2014. 

Mingo’s arrest drew immediate attention from the media and city officials. The pastor was quickly released from jail after Mayor Cranley intervened on his behalf, and a contractor offered to fix his wall free of charge following the arrest.

The attention to code violations has some elected leaders looking for ways to ease the burden on homeowners. Council members like Young and mayoral candidate Yvette Simpson would like to boost groups like People Working Cooperatively, which helps low-income people with certain home maintenance work. 

Meanwhile, nonprofit the Home Ownership Center is touting an effort to extend financial help to homeowners caught up in code compliance efforts. Partnering with lending institutions that are required by federal anti-discrimination settlements to extend lending opportunities in low-income communities, HOC is working to make sure that those cited by the city get money to fix their properties.

“Based on that ability to pay, various tools will be brought together,” Department of Building and Inspections Director Art Dahlberg told Council May 15. “If (residents) find that they really can’t take an additional financial burden on, then we’d be looking at a deferred payment loan purely for the cost of doing the repair work related to the orders.” 

Some loans would be forgivable and others wouldn’t be due back until after the homeowners sold a house to its next owner. HOC will evaluate applicants on their financial status and recommend programs fitting that ability.

“This is unlike anything else in regard to interaction with a bank,” HOC Director Rick Williams told Council. “We’re very much aware that a lot of the homeowners we’ll be working with don’t have relationships with banks at all.”

While the new program is limited to Mount Auburn and other neighborhoods that have recently undergone the Neighborhood Enhancement Program, Williams hopes it will “open the floodgates” and be extended citywide eventually. 

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.” ©

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