2414 Morgan Development: Does Cincinnati need a housing court?

'It's an incredibly complex problem'

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati is already using many of the tools that other cites have found successful in putting vacant buildings back into productive use, but there is one glaring exception.

“What we need is a housing court,” said Kathy Schwab, executive director of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation in Greater Cincinnati. “That’s how you control bad property owners.”

The issue came to light as WCPO reported on 2414 Morgan Development, a Washington, D.C.–based company with nine Over-the-Rhine buildings that are threatened by neglect, despite a decade of code enforcement efforts from the city of Cincinnati. The buildings’ owner says he wants to redevelop the properties and has the money to do it, but Cincinnati is considering legal action to compel long-needed repairs.

Read that story here

Cincinnati has a housing docket. Hamilton County Municipal Judge Russell Mock hears code enforcement cases every Tuesday. But it’s not as comprehensive an approach as the housing courts now operating in Cleveland, Toledo and Columbus. Mock can’t hear foreclosure cases, for example. Nor can he compel out-of-town owners to come to Cincinnati to answer charges.

Judge Mock said Hamilton County would “absolutely” benefit by having a housing court with beefed up jurisdiction. But he also thinks Cincinnati does a good job with the resources it has.

Establishment of a housing court would be tricky here because of a 1980s court case that requires municipal judges to be elected in districts. It could cost $1 million annually to administer, Mock added.

Cleveland, Toledo and Columbus are authorized by statute to operate special purpose municipal court divisions to handle code enforcement, foreclosures, landlord/tenant disputes and criminal prosecution of negligent property owners.

“You have a court and a judge and a judge’s staff totally focused on housing matters,” said Alan Mallach, senior fellow for the Center for Community Progress, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit. Mallach has written extensively on the issue of vacant buildings. He thinks Cleveland’s housing court is one of the best in the country at tackling the problem of vacant, blighted buildings.

“What helps Cleveland is that you also have a judge who is passionately dedicated to doing the right thing,” he said. “Can you come up with a good system without a housing court? I would say there are cities that do. But having a court focused on this does give you a definite advantage.”

In the meantime, Cincinnati is tackling the problem the way other cities do, with patience, persistence and an acute lack of funding.

Insiders can read more about Cincinnati's approach to decaying, vacant buildings, the strategies that other cities use and which cities are viewed as national models in their approach to the problem.

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