A Cincinnati housing court, which could ease burden on other courts, nears reality

36-year-old Cleveland court provides a blueprint
A Cincinnati housing court, which could ease burden on other courts, nears reality
Posted at 7:52 AM, Dec 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-20 09:00:27-05

CINCINNATI -- Dilapidated homes. Dangerous structures. Non-compliant landlords. Abusive tenants.

The city of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, like many metropolitan areas, have their share of all of these real estate and housing difficulties and more, reaching as far back as their founding.

What neither has had, at least in a concentrated form, is an entity to focus specifically on the problems to which urban, suburban and neighborhood living and working environments are sometimes prone.

In the fall of 2017, however, for the first time, the gavel may fall in a Cincinnati housing court.

Although a housing docket has been in place within the court system since 2003, when council members Paul Booth, a Democrat, and Republican Chris Monzel shepherded it into existence, the momentum toward a housing court has been building more or less since then.

Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel

"It's something that can be helpful for not only the city of Cincinnati but also the communities across Hamilton County," said Monzel, now a Hamilton County commissioner. "That's one reason we're wanting it to be a Common Pleas court, so it could apply across all the jurisdictions within the county."

On Dec. 5, Monzel and Cincinnati City Solicitor Paula Boggs Muething gave a presentation to the city's Law and Public Safety Committee outlining the drive for a housing court. One element showed how a Walnut Hills case, more or less typical, repeatedly peppered the court with violations and actions over a nine-year period. The housing docket runs for half of a day and has processed 200 cases or so every year since its inception.

Cincinnati City Solicitor Paula Boggs Muething. (Photo provided by the City of Cincinnati)

"The hope is that there will be a more holistic approach to the resolution of cases, so properties owned by the same property owner will be adjudicated kind of in a consistent way and all outstanding fines will be paid," said Boggs Muething. "When those cases are before the court, I think it will allow the court to have the full picture of not only one piece of property but also a property owner's entire portfolio. I think it also allows for the judge to understand when a property owner needs time to comply, versus needs something more harsh, some sort of stricter remedy."

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Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo have housing courts, though it's labeled environmental court in Columbus. According to Monzel and Boggs Muething's estimates, Cincinnati's would cost between $250,000 and $345,000 with a staff of six. The judge position would be funded by the state, and Monzel hopes that the remaining staff would be "budget-neutral," meaning their pay would come through the court's systems of fines and fees instead of requiring a tax increase.

Contrast Cincinnati's fledgling court with Cleveland's 36-year-old reality. It has a staff of 46, a budget of more than $4 million, receives 20,000 phone calls a year and hosts a clinic that had 7,000 walk-ins come in to complain about housing issues last year.

Judge Ray Pianka of the Cleveland Housing Court has held the job since 1995, having won four elections. A combination of longstanding urban flight and blight coupled with the housing crash in the late 2000s has left his court with plenty of work.

"We have some thriving neighborhoods, we have some neighborhoods that weren't thriving and are now thriving," Pianka said. "But we also have neighborhoods that are emptying out to the point that there's only a few people left behind. What do you do with those properties that are there? There was a major shift, probably after 2008, of property ownership in Cleveland. It used to be an absentee owner lived in an adjoining suburb. Now they're all over the world, and they've purchased inventories of distressed properties. All of these type of things need the scrutiny of the court and the enforcement of the codes that everyone has to comply with."

Cincinnati and Hamilton County need the blessing of both the Ohio Supreme Court and the General Assembly to start a housing court, and Pianka wishes them well.

"I think they'll find that having one court that's focusing on this issue is valuable," he said. "One of the reasons that the Cleveland housing court was established is that we wanted not only one court to focus on the issues and have a judge and staff that's knowledgeable about the problems and how to solve them, but also (a court that's) accountable. When I run for election, I run as judge of the housing court and I'm accountable for every decision."

The Cleveland housing court budget increased an average of 9.3 percent from 2014 to 2016. Its money comes from the city's general fund, which received a boost Nov. 8 when voters approved an income tax increase from 2 percent to 2.5 percent. While acknowledging that the Cincinnati court would take cues from Cleveland's and other courts like it, Monzel says there is a limit.

"We definitely don't want to create more bureaucracy," he said. "I think the idea is to streamline it so it becomes more effective in dealing with these community blight problems. You're not creating more bureaucracy but actually streamlining it and making it more effective to apply to these cases so that they don't drag on for years after years after years. They actually get resolved because you have one point of contact within the judicial system with this housing court."