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Hamilton County Municipal Judge Russell Mock discusses whether Cincinnati needs a housing court
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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Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Russell Mock hears code enforcement cases on the "housing docket" every Tuesday
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.
RELATED: City takes aim at absentee owner as Over-the-Rhine properties crumble PHOTOS: History of 10 decaying properties
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. And he can’t compel out-of-town owners to come to Cincinnati to answer charges.
“It’s an incredibly complex problem,” said Paula Boggs Muething, general counsel and vice president of community revitalization for the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority. Muething operates Hamilton County’s land bank, which has demolished more than 600 vacant buildings and works with the city to save iconic structures abandoned by their owners. With or without a housing court, it’s difficult to save neglected buildings.
“It isn’t all that easy to get control of properties particularly when you have an absentee ownership,” Muething said. “Those things take years. It’s a labor-intensive, resource-intensive process. If they could go and buy properties, if they had a lot of resources to stabilize and put liens on the property that would work, but again there’s that funding issue.”
Tools against blight include receivership actions in which cities, nonprofits or neighbors sue to repair problem properties. The court appoints a receiver to stabilize buildings and the property owner is billed for the job. Unpaid bills turn into liens against the property, which can lead to foreclosure.
Eminent domain is another tool that cities can use to take control of deteriorating properties. Demolition of abandoned properties is another. All of these approaches have been used by Cincinnati. They all take time and money. Mallach said the biggest problem is that foreclosures and urban flight have left cities with more vacant property than city budgets can address.
Mallach published research in 2012 showing Cincinnati had the potential for 7,981 demolitions over five years. Cleveland’s estimate was 14,057, Ohio’s total was 49,914.
“Cleveland is demolishing thousands of properties,” he said. “Part of the problem is that Cleveland has a steadily declining population and a huge excess of properties that basically nobody wants. There are just more properties than there is demand for them.”
No city has set the standard for dealing with problem properties, but most “are getting more savvy at this stuff,” said Mallach, author of "Bringing Buildings Back: From Vacant Properties to Community Assets."
Mallach gives Cleveland high marks for its use of the housing court and an aggressive demolition program. He thinks Baltimore and New Orleans have been strategic about focusing
funds on neighborhoods where rehabbing properties is likely to generate economic value. This approach is “definitely worth considering” in Over-the-Rhine, he said, where developments near Washington Park have proven a market for historic building rehabs.
“If you could through receivership get control of properties with some realistic prospects of actually getting that money back, that has a lot more value to it than going into a devastated area and doing rehabs in an area with very little economic value,” Mallach said.
These days, more cities are trying to “focus on preventing vacancy and abandonment from happening to begin with, when that’s possible,” said Jennifer Vey, a fellow at the Brookings Institution whose work focuses on the quality of life in cities and metropolitan areas.
Typically that’s done through code enforcement and housing assistance, she said.
“It’s really about applying the most appropriate strategies to a given neighborhood,” Vey said. “What it really comes down to is understanding the different market dynamics in different neighborhoods.”
Cities with an abundant supply of vacant and abandoned properties and little demand, such as Detroit, have focused on demolition, she said. Other cities have used land banks – acquiring property until they can get it into the hands of owners who will redevelop it.
Former Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut said Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. make effective use of tax incentives to encourage redevelopment of blighted properties. But Cincinnati already uses most of the tax perks Hudnut described, including low-income housing tax credits, green building incentives and abatements for new construction.
“If I was mayor in Indianapolis and I knew about this problem, I would ask a task force to get on it and see what they could do,” said Hudnut, a senior fellow emeritus at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C. “It would take a judicious task force to go out there and go one-on-one with these property owners.”
Cincinnati’s approach has been to consistently apply pressure to building owners that fail to maintain properties. But receivership actions are costly and time-consuming and Over-the-Rhine is but one neighborhood where vacant properties are taking a toll.
“We need to get these buildings into the hands of people who can take care of them,” said Ryan Messer, an Over-the-Rhine homeowner and president of the neighborhood’s community council. “It’s not for the weak of stomach, and it’s not for the weak of pocketbook. But the exciting part is, we have people who have both a strong stomach and sound financial funding sources. We have to strike now and get these people connected.”
This is the second of series that examined nine decaying buildings in Over-The-Rhine and one in Avondale all owned by the same Washington, D.C.-based company. That story can be found here. A related photo gallery, which includes a history of each property, can be found here.