ven as a lawsuit against the city over its “chronic nuisance” ordinance meanders through the federal court system, City Council voted last month to expand the ordinance’s fines, opening a new chapter in the rancorous history of City Hall’s crackdown on troubled housing units and so-called absentee landlords.
The ordinance, first adopted in 2007, allows the city to impose fines on rental property owners for recurring problems that result in a high number of police calls to their properties. Modeled after a successful Milwaukee program, violations include everything from loud music and small fights to drug use and gunplay. It’s become a political and legal hotpoint, leading to almost annual revisions by Cincinnati City Council and two federal lawsuits over its legality over the past four years.
“It’s had a long, almost tortured history,” says Chris Kearney, a member of Westwood Concern, one of the groups at the forefront of the latest version passed by City Council. Due to take effect this week, the newest update requires monthly reports to council and boosts fines for recurrent problem properties, taking the previous $250-$750 fines up to as much as $1,500, and adding levels for the most problematic that could cost owners up to $10,000.
Saying the original intent of the ordinance had “lost its teeth” as the city tried to appease landlords and settle lawsuits, Kearney says the latest revision — forged with help from the neighborhood groups and introduced by Councilman Charlie Winburn — is an attempt to return to its original intent.
“From the neighborhoods’ perspective, the ordinance should be about the people and places that are the problem,” he says. “Who the victims are and where the problems are, time and time again. Unfortunately, it became difficult when politics got involved. It was difficult when the courts were brought in.”
Almost from the start, owners of Cincinnati’s more than 19,000 multi-residential apartment buildings resisted the ordinance. Less than a year after the original ordinance passed, the Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Apartment Association (GCNKAA) and Real Estate Investors Association of Greater Cincinnati sued the city, claiming the ordinance passed the responsibility of law enforcement from police to property owners.
Transferred to mediation, both parties agreed to a few changes. The number of police calls that would trigger fines was adjusted, as well as narrowing the kinds of calls that could trigger the ordinance. Annual revisits of the ordinance continued to loosen requirements, while the neighborhood groups fought for tighter reporting procedures and more attention to landlords’ actions in addressing the problems themselves.
By early 2010, the GCNKAA finally dropped their lawsuit, but the city found itself back in court by year’s end when Downtown Property Management Inc. (DPM), one of the area’s largest apartment management firms, filed suit challenging the ordinance’s constitutionality. The suit, filed by Manley Burke’s Julia Carney on behalf of DPM, alleged the ordinance subjects landlords to fines or possible criminal prosecution for actions that are beyond their control.
“Most of the problems at one of our client’s sites were caused by people other than tenants or their guests,” Carney says. “The problems were people who didn’t belong on the property, so how can you hold the property owner accountable for those calls? How can you fine the property owner when they have no control over what those people are doing?”
According to DPM Operations Director Harry Ramineni, the company doesn’t have a problem with holding owners accountable, but it wants the ordinance to be applied fairly.
“We’ve never had an issue working with the city or with the Police Department,” Ramineni says. “We see them as our partners. We have been working on meeting our responsibilities, and we’ve gotten better.”
DPM’s concern, he adds, is because of a unique situation in their six large complexes, located in Westwood, Avondale, English Woods and Walnut Hills. One, located at 2400 Harrison Ave. in Westwood, has been tagged as a nuisance, the source of more than 150 police calls to the 110-unit building last year, because all the units are listed under one address.
“We’re in a unique situation, and the city’s code enforcement and some members of City Council refuse to understand that. If another building has the same number of units but are listed under 10 addresses, they don’t have a problem,” Ramineni says. “But, because all 110 units have one address, we have a problem. It’s set up an unfair situation, but the city isn’t taking that into account.”
DPM’s case was referred to mediation by a judge last year. There’s been little movement since, while DPM has reportedly racked up close to $17,000 in fines from the city.
“The case has been very slow moving,” Carney says. “We meet with the judge every few months to see if there are any issues that we can agree on. There haven’t been many.”
And when City Council was considering its latest revision, the mood was less than conciliatory.
“I went to every one of council’s hearings, Carney says. “I gave testimony on the effect of the ordinance and how it needs to be changed, which was obviously dismissed.”
Meanwhile, some of the neighborhood activists have grown weary of the ongoing debate. Mary Kuhl has worked with Westwood Concern to toughen the ordinance. She’s happy with the latest version, but is frustrated with the city nonetheless.
“The thing is — and this is the same thing I said to (ex-City Councilman) John Cranley years ago when council voted to double fines for littering — let’s raise the fines to five gazillion dollars,” Kuhl says. “The point is, the amount of the fines don’t matter if the ordinance isn’t being enforced. For years, it hasn’t been.”
Kuhl attributes that to the issue’s politicalization.
“City Council gets caught up in trying to fix things,” she says. “They keep coming back and saying they’ve fixed it, but we didn’t need to reinvent the ordinance. All we needed to do was enforce the law that was already on the books. The city’s failed to do that.”
Kearney agrees that, for some time, the city had been “all show, no go” when it comes to the nuisance ordinance, but the latest version gives him hope.
“When council was debating it, they had people come in and say everything was working fine,” he says. “What we did was bring data to show that it wasn’t. It brought an intellectual honesty to the debate. The ultimate truth is that you can’t enforce every law, but you have to enforce the ones that matter. This is one that matters, and we — the neighborhood groups — are going to stay on it.” ©