Problems at these Avondale apartments prompted change that could help all Cincinnati renters

New landlord training aims to prevent headaches

CINCINNATI -- Michael Pinkston walked through his apartment on Burton Avenue in Avondale and pointed to problems he has been trying to get his landlord to fix for years.

There's the torn-up floor in the kitchen, window screens that are ripped to the point of flapping in the breeze and a deteriorating floor in the bathroom.

But the thing that scares Pinkston most is the electrical outlet in his 4-year-old daughter's bedroom. Cracks in the wall have made the plate loose. Pinkston has taped the wall as best he can, but the slightest jiggle of the plug can send out sparks, he said.

An outlet in Michael Pinkston's apartment.

Even so, Pinkston has hope -- for the first time in a long time -- that things are getting better in the building where he has lived for nine years now.

"It's been a struggle," he said. "But we're seeing lots of changes. We have a fence now, new hallway floors and they're reconstructing some of the hallway areas. It's a lot of issues, and it's going to take time."

Michael Pinkston in the living room of his Avondale apartment.

It's been almost a year since Pinkston, his daughter and more than two dozen other families were forced out of their apartments at 1026 Burton Ave. Many were awakened at 4 a.m. when a severe roof leak during a heavy rain caused ceilings to collapse, and water flooded apartment units and hallways.

Tenants spent hours on a Metro bus before being moved to a nearby recreation center and then a motel.

Getting the building in good enough shape for the tenants to move back in took a couple of weeks, Pinkston said, and the tenants returned to a stinky, bug-infested mess. After several legal actions, work began on the building early this year, he said. Repairs are still underway.

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The mess surrounding the Burton Avenue building was a driving force behind the city of Cincinnati's decision to revamp its landlord-training program, said Art Dahlberg, director of the city's Department of Buildings and Inspections.

"When you're to that point, you're absolutely trying to manage an emergency," said Dahlberg, who began his job at the city just days before the Burton Avenue building had to be vacated. "You're managing a building that's in crisis. You're managing people's lives that are in crisis. And that's not the most effective way to manage."

Dahlberg said he's confident that the city's new training program will help prevent problems like what occurred in Avondale long before they happen.

The goal: Prevent headaches and heartache

The city of Cincinnati has had a landlord-training program for years.

The old program was focused mainly on working with police to help landlords keep criminal activity out of their buildings.

That focus isn't going away, Dahlberg said. But the revamped training also includes information from the city's Building and Inspections and Fire departments and from the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati.

"We're also trying to market this wider so we get more diversity in terms of landlords," Dahlberg said. "We want to reach people who are just starting to buy rental property so we can teach them the best ways to manage rental property."

Those lessons include:

• How to screen tenants effectively, in accordance with the Fair Housing Law.

• Questions landlords can ask and those they can't ask.

• How to do background checks.

• And the eviction process.

"Hopefully what we convey to them is a little bit of energy on the front end saves a whole lot of headache on the back end," Dahlberg said. "Evicting people takes a whole lot of time and energy and is painful for people on both sides."

The training also will include helping landlords understand how to assess their buildings and evaluate problems that a property might have.

Dahlberg said the city aims to offer the training 10 times each year, with a goal of reaching new landlords and those who have been struggling.

But not everyone involved in the local rental business is convinced that a new landlord-training program is the answer.

'It's not a cure all'

Charles Tassell said the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky Apartment Association always encourages its members to attend the city's landlord training programs.

But he said he would like to see better collaboration between city building inspectors and other officials and the landlords who manage properties throughout the city.

"Property owners are the best ones to manage property," he said. "I always find it interesting that the city is telling property owners how to manage property rather than letting property owners do it."

The apartment association itself can offer guidance and ongoing education -- especially for new landlords -- when they need it, Tassell said.

That's not to say the city training is useless.

"Can it be helpful? Yeah, it can be helpful," Tassell said. "It is the best? Not necessarily."

Tassell said the association would rather see the city pursue other strategies to address problem properties. He suggested alternate sentencing, where property owners who violate city codes are required to attend educational classes, or an inspection program that focuses more resources on problem properties instead of spending time on buildings that don't have a history of problems. 

"There's two kinds of problem property owners," he said. "Those who don't know, and those who don't care."

Education should be the first line of attack for those who don't know, he said, while stricter legal remedies should be used for those who don't care.

But one of the lawyers who represented Pinkston and the other Burton Avenue tenants during litigation against the property's owner said she thinks the new training is worth a try.

"I certainly don't think it's going to hurt," said Stephanie Moes, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio. 

Wood is chipped away from Pinkston's door, which barely locks, he said, making it easier for people to break in.

"We continue to struggle with property owners -- especially those from out of town or LLCs who know what their responsibilities are but have a business model where they don't invest in the building," Moes said. "It's not a cure all. But we're supportive."

For his part, Pinkston said he supports better training for landlords. He would like to see something that helps tenants better understand their rights, too. He helped the tenants of his building form the Burton Avenue Residents Association after the evacuation, and he remains a leader of the group.

"A lot of people often say just because we live in low-income housing, maybe we don't deserve to have decent housing," he said. "Does that mean we have to be tortured with roaches and bad apartments? I don't think so. I disagree with that."

Michael Pinkston keeps his windows closed because he is afraid his young daughter will fall through the ripped screen if she tries to peek out an open window.

More information about the city of Cincinnati's Landlord Education Program is available online. The next session is from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Oct. 22 at Christ Hospital's main auditorium. The training is free, and interested landlords can register online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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