Cincinnati City Council Passes Raft of Eviction Aid Measures

The measures could help tenants, but some say more questions need answered.

Oct 30, 2019 at 3:32 pm
click to enlarge Cincinnati City Hall - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Cincinnati City Hall

Cincinnati City Council today passed five ordinances and three motions designed to help struggling Cincinnatians with one of their most elemental needs: the ability to keep safe, stable housing.

The Queen City has about 85,000 rental units — roughly 60 percent of the city's overall housing stock. Advocates say some of the people renting those units are vulnerable to eviction, to lack of maintenance on properties by landlords and to other problems like high late fees. 

Evictions displaced more than 30 people a day in Cincinnati in 2016, according to data from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, which tracks the legal removal of residents from rental homes. Fourteen Cincinnati Census tracts had an eviction rate higher than 8 percent — a huge five and a half points above the national rate.

The city as a whole had a 4.7 percent eviction rate in 2016, more than two points above the national average, according to data from the Eviction Lab. Cincinnati has generally had a higher rate of eviction than the nation as a whole.

Cincinnati City Council member Greg Landsman introduced the legislation seeking to combat those problems last week. He says the measures have been a year in the making and are the results of input from a committee of experts and tenants. 

"These are evictions that are preventable, and there are thousands of them," Landsman said today. "This will dramatically improve communication between landlords and tenants, and it will increase the quality and reliability of housing. There is an eviction crisis and it affects thousands of people, many of them children." 

A number of organizations — from the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky Apartment Association to Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Cincinnati — support the laws. 

But not everyone is happy about the measures. Some landlords say the requirements will be too costly and could drive up rents. Others, including Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes, say some of the measures duplicate efforts already in place. Rhodes says the county must keep a rental registry under state law.

Joanne Hall represents landlords in CUF. She called the laws "unnecessary bureaucracy" in comments to council today.

"Every time an ordinance like this is passed, it makes it more expensive for landlords to do business," shr said. "Those costs have to be passed forward to the residents. It also causes landlords to not rent to the low-income and pull out of the market altogether."

Councilmember Jeff Pastor said he wanted the items held for a fuller airing of those and other concerns. The legislation moved through Neighborhoods Committee, which Pastor chairs, this week. That committee voted to hold the items, but Mayor John Cranley placed them on today's council agenda.

Pastor was the only member who voted against the ordinances.

"Privacy is a big issue," Pastor said of the measures. "Duplication is another. I don't think this is efficient government. And to me, it doesn't address the cause of evictions."

One of the ordinances council approved will create a rental inspection pilot program in Avondale, CUF and East Price Hill, where there are a higher-than-average number of older rental units.

The program is designed to apply scrutiny to properties declared a public nuisance by the city. It will assess landlords in those neighborhoods a $100 inspection fee, give them six months to address issues and require they keep their rental units up to city code. 

Another ordinance will create a rental unit registry with the city. Landlords would pay one dollar to register each rental unit of housing they own. The hope is this will allow the city to better hold landlords, especially out-of-town owners of many rental units, accountable for the conditions of the housing they rent out.

The document wouldn't be readily available to the public, but would be subject to public records requests. That caused concerns for some council members.

Council member David Mann asked that a provision requiring rental amounts and details about particular rental units be stricken from the ordinance, but that suggestion was not taken up.

"Most of this information is on Zillow," Landsman said. "It's just about whether we have access to it."

The city will create a tenant information website under the third ordinance council passed today. That website would gather information about tenants facing eviction proceedings in Hamilton County courts and allow service providers like St. Vincent DePaul, which is already helping to run a $400,0000 eviction prevention program with the city, to see that information. A public-facing portion of the website would also contain information about tenants' rights and referrals to service organizations that can help with eviction issues.

A fourth ordinance council passed today stresses that tenants have the right to 24 hours' notice before an inspection by the city or visit by a landlord. 

The final ordinance caps late fees for tenants who have had trouble paying their rent at $50 or five percent of the monthly rent they pay for each month their rent is late. Landlords would not be permitted to charge interest on those fees — something they can do currently.

"Excessive late fees substantially burden residential tenants, especially tenants with limited and fixed incomes; do not protect the legitimate financial interest of landlords; and lead to unnecessary evictions," the ordinance reads.

Three motions also ask the city administration to look into other measures. Those include tying incentives — tax abatements and other subsidies — to lease language that guarantees that tenants facing three-day eviction proceedings in court can stay in their housing if they pay the rent that is due. Another asks for biannual reports on the progress of the rental inspection program, while a third asks the city to make sure its department of buildings and inspections has enough resources for that pilot program.