Fatal fire renews interest in landlord, tenant rights

University Heights home didn't meet all city codes

CINCINNATI - There's renewed interest in Greater Cincinnati to make sure both landlords and tenants follow rental properties laws.

The impetus is the New Year's Day fire in University Heights that claimed the life of University of Cincinnati student Chad Kohls and critically injured another student, Ellen Garner.

Both were on the top floor of a three-story house on Digby Avenue when a fire broke out a floor below them just before 7 a.m.

The single-family brick building had six people living there, according to Ed Cunningham, Cincinnati Property Maintenance Code Enforcement Division Manager. That, he said, violated the Cincinnati Housing Code.

"In a single-family home you may have up to five unrelated individuals living as a family," he said. "If you exceed five unrelated individuals, you've crossed over into another use group classification and the property must be brought up to the standards of the new use group classification as though it were a new building."

Cunningham said that could include an exterior fire escape, second interior stairway, fire alarm system or window modifications for escape.

Ohio law lays out landlord/tenant rules for minimum housing habitability standards. In Cincinnati, the housing regulations are outlined in Section 1117 of the Cincinnati Municipal Code.

"They cover safety, sanitation, electrical, plumbing, occupancy standards and fire safety," Cunningham said. "Nearly everything that has to do with housing is covered in this housing code."

The bottom line is the landlord is responsible for the maintenance of the property and the tenants have responsibilities as well to maintain that part of the property safe and clean.

"When you hang out that shingle -- apartment for rent -- you should know the codes and make it your business to comply with them," Cunningham added.

There are about 15,000 landlords renting 27,000 properties in Hamilton County.  All of them have to register with the Hamilton County Auditor's Office. The auditor's website lists whether the property owner has complied.

Auditor Dusty Rhodes said about three-fourths of the landlords in the county have registered, but added he's seeing a new trend that he's trying to correct.

"The big problem is people who are trying to sell a home and can't sell it and rent it for a period of time until they can," Rhodes said. "They are supposed to register and a lot of people just don't know it."

Fire safety is a another key element of keeping renters safe, according to Capt. Maurice Vassar of the Cincinnati Fire Department. The main component is smoke detectors, especially as defined under the law.

"Landlords need to realize they need to provide smoke detectors. It's their legal responsibility," he said. "They need to have a working smoke detector and it's the tenant's responsibility to make sure a battery is replaced in it."

Charles Tassell, Director of the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Apartment Owners Association, said his organization represents hundreds of landlords who rent 78,000 units across the Tri-State.

Tassell said tenants taking batteries out of smoke detectors is the single biggest problem for landlords. Another is how they use extension cords.

Capt. Vassar said he agreed that people often put too much of a load on the wrong size cord.

"They'll put a big appliance with a small extension cord," he said. "Keep in mind extension cords are not intended to be permanent wiring. They can overheat and cause a fire so you've got to keep an eye on them."

Another tip Capt. Vance suggested for prospective tenants is checking to make sure sleeping areas have doors that close.

"Doors stop the spread of fire or at least slow it up," he said. "So, that's a safety issue."

He added renters should also make sure there are two ways out of the unit they're considering, no blocked doors and no windows nailed shut.

If an emergency does occur, Capt. Vassar said people need to call 911 if they see a fire instead of trying to put it out  themselves.

"It's better for us to come and you don't need us than to need us and we're not there," he said.

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