CINCINNATI - Taylor Barnett has had enough.
The 21-year-old college student is moving to Mariemont, leaving behind the crowded house near University of Cincinnati where she’s lived since July. She and her boyfriend share an apartment on the first floor of the split-level house while three UC students share the four-bedroom second story. But Barnett said as many as six people end up sleeping upstairs on any given night.
“With how many people who stay there – and they’re always drunk – we’re worried about them falling asleep with a lit cigarette,” said Barnett, an architecture student at Cincinnati State whose boyfriend is a student at UC.
The scores of single-family homes that have been converted to student housing around UC’s campus have come under new scrutiny since a house fire on New Year’s Day claimed the lives of two college students . While the investigation into that fire didn't conclude that overcrowding was a cause, officials have said there were more people living in the Digby Avenue house than city code allows.
A WCPO Digital investigation found cause for concern beyond the confines of the house that burned.
At issue: The city has no system to inspect existing single-family homes that are converted to student rental properties. That’s starkly different from newly constructed student housing, which must pass inspection before a certificate of occupancy is issued. And there are hundreds of older homes being rented around campus that fall in the housing inspection blind spot.
Buildings can go unnoticed
WCPO Digital found:
• A total of 376 single-family houses in the neighborhoods nearest UC are registered as rental properties with Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes’ office.
• Dozens of rental properties around campus are advertised as having six, seven or more bedrooms. It’s unclear how many of them have enough exits and fire safety equipment for so many occupants.
• Rental property that doesn't have enough exits or fire safety equipment can go unnoticed. Building code enforcement is complaint-driven. So if nobody complains, nobody checks to make sure property owners are following the rules.
• Students and property owners have good reasons to pack as many renters into a house as possible. For students, the practice can lower their costs. For landlords, it means more money.
Neighborhood residents say a lot of the problem comes down to one word: Greed.
“If you look at where the owners live, their houses look like nothing that’s in my neighborhood, I can tell you that,” said long-time Clifton Heights resident Linda Ziegler. “I don’t see that anybody cares.”
CUF Neighborhood Association President Cherie Wallpe said the association has repeatedly raised concerns with city and university officials about rental properties in Clifton Heights, University Heights and Fairview.
“After the fire, we really thought this might get a little more attention,” she said.
But so far, not much has changed.
Residents want crackdown
Now neighborhood residents – and even a local landlord – are renewing calls for the city and university to join forces and find a way to make rental properties safer for students.
“Landlords have to be held accountable for compliance and density issues,” said Dan Schimberg, president of Uptown Rental Properties LLC. “The city has to be held accountable for strict code enforcement when it comes to life safety and zoning issues. When you have strict code enforcement, it flushes out land speculators. You flush out the slumlords.”
Schimberg argues much of the area’s housing stock was built before 1940, making it “functionally obsolete” and “not safe for how people live today.” Schimberg’s company owns or manages more than 2,000 residential units in the neighborhoods surrounding UC. Most of its units are in newly constructed buildings or larger properties that were built to code and that draw higher rents than the converted homes they compete against.
At the heart of the issue is a section of the Cincinnati housing code that states no more than five unrelated people can live in a single-family home without approval from the city and added safety features in the house. It’s a requirement some landlords call arbitrary. They claim it has little to do with whether or not a property is safe.
“It’s not the size of the unit or anything else,” said Al Tepperberg, a retired UC economics professor. He started his Clifton Housing rental business more than 40 years ago and has become the largest owner of single-family homes for rent in the neighborhood. He owns 25 such properties on Flora, Victor, Wheeler and Atkinson streets as well as along Clifton, Fairview and Stratford avenues.
“It doesn't matter how many exits you would have,” he said. “If somebody is completely drunk, they can’t get out.”
Tepperberg said he has lots of demand for his six- and seven-bedroom houses. He makes sure to rent so it’s one student per bedroom, he said. He said he's confident his buildings are safe, regardless of what the code says. After all, he
has smoke detectors in every bedroom and outside of every bedroom.
“Some of these kids, I don’t know what they’re doing besides getting drunk,” he said. “I have parents ask me, ‘Where can we get a good price for a beer pong table?’ You do your best because of the kids. But sometimes you cannot tell how they’re going to be.”
Fruth Property Management follows the letter and spirit of the city’s codes when it comes to occupancy, said company vice president Jeff Gray.
But he agreed that occupancy doesn't necessarily equate to safety. After all, most students have guests and parties.
“We’re very conscious of fire escapes and things like that,” Gray said. “You can’t say to your tenants, ‘You can never have anyone here who is not on the lease.’ Who would rent?”
Complaints drive inspections
Hamilton County property records show 5,082 single-family homes registered as rental properties in the city of Cincinnati, including 376 in the neighborhoods closest to UC. State law requires landlords to register their rental properties in Ohio’s largest counties.
A review of building code enforcement activity in the last six months finds 165 housing-code complaints in neighborhoods near UC, including 114 that led to orders from inspectors. Only a handful involved fire safety issues, such as a Jan. 29 complaint at 2914 Jefferson Ave. Owner Zachary Hayes was ordered to repair electric fixtures after a report that an outlet sparked and caught fire.
One of the sharpest rebukes from city housing inspectors came two days after the Digby Avenue fire claimed the lives of UC students Chad Kohls and Ellen Garner.
“This building is unsafe, unsanitary and unfit for human occupancy,” inspector Terry James wrote in a building condemnation order at 2824 Digby Ave.
Investigators have ruled the fatal fire an accident, caused by a blanket left too close to a space heater. But inspectors noted the home had seven mattresses on three floors, and its owner told inspectors six students signed the lease. The home did not have a fire escape or other exits required by the city’s building code, said Ed Cunningham, manager of the city’s division of property maintenance code enforcement.
“If you’ve got six people, there’s going to be more crowding, more likelihood of more guests,” Cunningham said. “Large crowds and fires don’t mix.”
Landlords rarely cited
Cincinnati District Fire Chief Fred Prather, who oversees the city’s fire-prevention efforts, said inspectors will investigate any complaint involving buildings that have too many residents with too few escape routes. But he knows of no landlord who has ever been cited for the code violation.
“We’ve had only two calls for that over the last several years,” Prather said. “We encourage citizens, if they believe hazardous conditions are a problem, they should call the fire department and we’ll investigate.”
The issue of packing lots of student renters into single-family houses around UC has been a problem for years, Cunningham said.
The city’s Neighborhood Enhancement Program tackled the issue in 2008 by working with UC to try to create a landlord certification program.
The idea was to get landlords to voluntarily submit to housing, health and fire safety inspections. Those who passed would get a certification to be posted on UC’s web site so prospective students and their parents would know more about rental housing near campus. The inspections were designed to be voluntary, he said, in part because the city doesn't have enough staff to conduct random inspections of every rental property.
The problem, though, was that landlords didn't want to participate, Cunningham said.
“We thought it would be a good tool to market their businesses and to know they’d be safe,” he said. “It just didn't take off.”
“We’d like to revive that if people would do it,” Cunningham said.
Cincinnati fire prevention officers make presentations to student groups at UC, Xavier University and Cincinnati Christian University. Prather said the department is looking for ways to expand its educational efforts.
“We’re going to try to reach students when they’re ready to receive the message,” he said.
University officials say they’re working on the problem, too. UC is working with neighborhood groups on housing issues and “is concerned about the safety and welfare of our students,” said Debra Merchant, interim vice president for student affairs.
“The university has strongly supported initiatives to improve code enforcement and any measures which would increase the safety of the homes that students occupy,” she said.
Still, fire safety isn’t the first concern of many students around UC.
Jonathan Crase, a 19-year-old finance major from Union, Ky., said he’s one of six students in a three-story house they rent. The house doesn’t have any fire escapes, Crase said, but he said there are ladders on the top floor that can be used to climb out a window in case of emergency.
Crase said his landlord told the students that next year, he could only rent to five people because
of the city’s rules.
“I’m more afraid of getting mugged than a house fire,” said Crase, who stays on the house’s second floor. “But I feel pretty safe.”
The city takes complaints from neighbors, but officials don’t get many, Cunningham said.
And the complaints can be tough to investigate because students often don’t want to cooperate, he said.
Long-time Clifton Heights resident Sandra Wilson said she thinks fire department safety inspectors would have better luck with students than city inspectors.
“The average student would let a fireman in,” she said. “If they can get in and count the mattresses, they’ll find out how many people are living there.”
Part of the problem is that a dwindling number of homes around UC are occupied by the people who own them, Wilson said. That equates to fewer adults nearby to call the police, fire department or housing inspectors when they see something doesn’t look safe.
“It’s just out of control,” she said. “It’s a very sad situation in the community.”