Problem properties: Solutions, resources scarce for Cincinnati's most troubled properties

WCPO has spent months covering the impact of problem properties on tenants, neighborhoods and the regulators who are struggling to keep track of them. This story is part of that series. Read the entire eight-part series here. 

CINCINNATI - Bed bugs. Drugs. Crime. Neglect. 

Across Cincinnati, these problems and more plague thousands of rental houses and apartments that are home to tens of thousands city residents. When their landlords don't tackle the issues, whose job is it? 

For decades, the city of Cincinnati's strategy for targeting problem properties and bad landlords has been patchwork at best, top leaders say.

Inspectors for building and health code enforcement diligently follow-up on reports of property neglect and violations. The Cincinnati Police Department offers training for landlords to educate them about screening tenants and keeping their buildings secure. Eventually, the worst of the bad actors are charged either criminally or taken to civil court should they fail to act.

But those working daily to solve the problems say more can be done.

"We have a lot of good programs, a lot of good attempts at trying to deal with nuisance abatement, but they were scattered and not strategically coordinating," said City Solicitor Paula Boggs Muething.

Check out the interactive below to search problem properties by Cincinnati neighborhood.

 

In the last year, under Muething’s guidance, the city law department has been trying new approaches.

Muething has assembled a team of seven lawyers and two paralegals in the city's Law Department to follow up with legal action against property owners who have repeated code violations and won't fix their buildings.

The focus has resulted in filing court cases against property owners, such as PF Holdings - a New Jersey-based owner of at least six low-income apartment buildings that have fallen on the city's nuisance list.

"Ultimately, these are serious health and safety issues that we're seeking to have corrected for the benefit of the residents and the surrounding community," Muething said. “When (the city) writes an order or cites someone for lead or weeds…there has to be consequences of if they don’t comply.”

City departments also are cooperating more than ever before to get a more complete picture of the trouble that blighted properties are causing so they can work together to find the best way to attack the problem, said Ed Cunningham, division manager of the city's property maintenance code enforcement division.

In the past, city staff in different departments didn't always realize the various violations that would pile up against a specific property, he said.

"You can have all these little things going on, and the neighborhood is suffering a death by a thousand cuts," he said. "When you get us all around the table, we can see we need to get it before a court to get it declared a nuisance and get something done about it."

So far, the new approach is gaining attention and results, said Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition.

“In my experience, the city in the past has not been a partner with us and the trend had been to blame the residents in these properties for the living conditions,” said Spring, who helps low-income tenants organize against lousy landlords. “It’s different for us to say that the City Council and law department are really at the table on this.”

Still, some community advocates say they would like to see even more happen before Cincinnati's neighborhoods slip deeper into decline.

Ozie Davis said the neighborhood where he lives and works needs a more fundamental solution first.

Davis is executive director of the Avondale Comprehensive Development Corporation. He wrote to Mayor John Cranley in August and asked the city to require multi-family landlords to hire security or police details.

Some big landlords, such as The Community Builders and Model Group in Avondale, already have hired security even without a requirement, Davis said.

"It's definitely worked on Burnet with Model," he said. "Crime is down. Residents are happier. There's a lot less litter. I don't have the principal (of Rockdale Academy) calling me about shootings after school."

City Manager Harry Black thinks there could be an even more effective way to address the problems that rundown properties bring: Identify the blight before it happens.

He and Chad Kenney, director of the city's Office of Performance and Data Analytics, believe that's possible using what's known as predictive analytics.

Predictive analytics uses data the city already collects — information on building code violations, police calls, fire runs and more — to determine where blight is most likely to occur before it happens.

The city experimented with the idea this summer with help from a grant worth $150,000 from the University of Chicago. Predictive analytics did a better job of identifying problem properties than the city's current two approaches — following up on complaints and blanketing a particular area through a 90-day Neighborhood Enhancement Program, or NEP.

Black called it a "next-generation breakthrough."

"It will allow us to be much, much more strategically proactive — almost surgical," Black said.

The pilot project was so successful that Black got Cincinnati City Council to approve the hiring of a data scientist so the work can expand and continue, he said. Black and Kenney expect the predictive model for blight will be tested and ready to use within six months.

"We know properties require different levels of intervention," Kenney said. "But the more we can figure out ahead of time, the better."

While the city has made gains in the last year, “we’re still not where we need to be,” Muething said.

In recent weeks, six members of Cincinnati City Council signed an ordinance in support of establishing a housing court that would beef up the city’s enforcement powers against problem-property owners.

"This is clearly an incredibly important issue facing many under-resourced communities," Muething said. "We can’t go in and make people do certain things without taking court action."

Spring agreed.

“Hopefully, this begins to set a new tone and is a warning to landlords that not only will end up with a legal battle on your hands," Spring said, "but the court of public opinion doesn’t put with owners who force their tenants to live in poor conditions." 
 

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