CINCINNATI — The city of Cincinnati is cracking down on an out-of-town landlord whose Avondale property casts a spotlight on the inadequacies of the region’s pandemic-stressed housing market.
A Cincinnati housing inspector posted a “Notice of Civil Offense” at 810 N. Fred Shuttlesworth Circle on Feb. 9, alleging BWB Amherst Properties LLC failed to comply with building-code orders to repair heating and hot-water problems in the 25-unit apartment building. The notice, which carries with it a $750 fine, follows weeks of tenants’ pleas for help to the city of Cincinnati.
“It’s been hell. It’s literally been hell,” said Kimberly Thomas, who said she faced a litany of problems in her unit before BWB Properties LLC sued her for eviction . “It’s not just me. It’s my whole family that’s affected by this situation.”
Those BWB business entities are among dozens of limited-liability companies affiliated with Elijah Rashaed, a Florida-based real estate investor who was ordered by a Milwaukee judge in 2018 to relinquish control of more than 160 properties after the city of Milwaukee sued him to enforce more than 1,000 building code violations.
Rashaed’s West Palm Beach, Florida, home is listed in Hamilton County records as the mailing address for two Avondale apartment buildings. Those properties -- 810 N. Fred Shuttlesworth and a 24-unit building at 725 Greenwood Ave. -- have been ordered by building inspectors to make 47 different repairs since BWB bought the properties in October, 2017.
But these aren’t isolated problems with a single out-of-town landlord. Across Greater Cincinnati, renters like Thomas live in aging properties like the one on North Fred Shuttlesworth Circle, which was built in 1928. And advocates say the region’s shortage of affordable housing means far too many renters live in conditions that are unhealthy and unsafe.
Rashaed repeatedly refused to speak with the I-Team on the record when contacted by phone. But when told the interview had to be on the record, he gave this statement: “We love our tenants. We take care of our tenants. The situation that has happened -- we’re currently working to take care of it.”
‘Two levels of housing’
This isn’t the first time Rashaed drew the ire of housing regulators in Cincinnati.
An arrest warrant was issued for Rashaed in 2018 after health inspectors found lead contamination in a Shuttlesworth apartment that was being used as a daycare. Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Bernie Bouchard ordered Rashaed to shut down all daycare activity in the building as a condition of bond. Three misdemeanor charges were dismissed in 2019 after inspectors confirmed the lead was abated.
Court records also show BWB has filed 106 eviction lawsuits in its 40 months as an Avondale landlord. Thirty of those eviction cases were filed after last April, when the CARES Act established new protections for tenants to keep them from losing their homes during the pandemic.
The financial agony reflected in those court cases is a symptom of a much larger problem that the Tri-State has been grappling with for decades: A shortage of affordable housing that meets basic quality standards.
“We have an older housing stock,” said Kristen Baker, executive director of LISC Greater Cincinnati, a nonprofit leading efforts to increase and improve the region’s affordable housing. “Some of that was built to last. Some of it was built after World War II, and it’s really outlived its usefulness in many regards.”
It can be difficult and costly for well-meaning landlords and property owners to keep their older buildings in good repair, she said, especially properties that charge rents that low-income tenants can afford.
And not every landlord is trying, said Nick DiNardo, managing attorney at Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio, LLC.
“There’s sort of two levels of housing out there for kind of your low-income or working-class people,” DiNardo said. “There are the places that are decent, the landlords who take care of their properties. But once you have one eviction on your record, whether you deserved it or not, or once you’re in a very desperate situation, that’s when you have a second level of landlord out there who just don’t maintain their properties because they don’t have to.”
A study commissioned by LISC Greater Cincinnati in 2017 found that Hamilton County has a deficit of 40,000 units of housing that are affordable and available to people with the lowest incomes, Baker noted.
That gap drives desperate people to rent substandard places, DiNardo said, and it means some landlords don’t have to keep their properties maintained to keep them filled.
That’s how Thomas and her two sons ended up in the apartment on North Fred Shuttlesworth Circle.
“I looked and looked and looked and didn’t want to be homeless again,” she said. “This was a last resort.”
Many tenants in poorly maintained properties refuse to complain for fear they will be forced to move, DiNardo said, either by city inspectors who declare the property unsafe or by landlords who find a reason to evict them.
“Certainly landlords who don’t make repairs are the same landlords who retaliate against people who complain,” he said. “Oftentimes low-income tenants have, you know, have these choices where all the options are bad and so they have to pick the one for them that’s the least bad.”
Eviction moratoriums ‘only a partial fix’
BWB Properties used court cases to remove at least 17 tenants from its buildings since April 7, 2020, when the CARES Act imposed a 120-day moratorium on evictions for the nonpayment of rent in all properties receiving federal assistance or financing. That moratorium expired July 25. It was replaced Sept. 4 when the Centers for Disease Control imposed “a temporary eviction moratorium to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.” It also prohibited evictions for nonpayment of rent but applied to all landlords, not just those with federal funding.
But neither moratorium has prevented all evictions, DiNardo said, for a variety of reasons. Some tenants don’t know how to assert the moratorium as a defense to eviction, he said, and not all courts have interpreted the rules of each moratorium in the same way.
“The CDC order itself was a good thing,” DiNardo said. “It's helped prevent some evictions. It's given us more time to help people get people qualified for emergency assistance, (but) it's not a complete fix. It's only a partial fix.”
Of the 30 cases filed by BWB Properties since April, evictions were granted in 14 cases and tenants vacated their apartments in four others. Eight cases were dismissed and four are still pending. In one case, a tenant who blocked her eviction with the CDC moratorium was later evicted under a different cause of action. BWB Properties alleged the tenant, Deona Hale, failed to vacate her Greenwood Avenue apartment after it terminated her month-to-month tenancy.
DiNardo said he wasn’t familiar with the specifics of BWB’s eviction cases. But he said evicting a tenant who successfully used the CDC moratorium to block a prior eviction “goes against the spirit” of the CDC order. That order allows evictions for violating contractual obligations other than nonpayment but doesn’t address month-to-month tenancies.
“While it's not explicitly rejected as one of the grounds for eviction, I think landlords who are doing that are certainly violating the spirit of the order,” DiNardo said. “Legal Aid has at least one or two cases where we're going to be pursuing this line of argument.”
‘She has done everything right’
BWB filed Jan. 7 to evict Thomas, who is also on a month-to-month tenancy. It argued she ignored its notice to vacate the apartment, and a magistrate told her Feb. 1 that she had seven days to move. By that time, Thomas said, she and her two sons had been without hot water for two weeks and had a hole in the bathroom ceiling that drips water when it rains.
Desperate, Thomas contacted a neighborhood advocacy group, The People's Platform for Equality and Justice, which referred her to the Lincoln Ware show. Paul Booth heard her on the radio and offered to help.
“I would say this about Ms. Thomas. She has done everything right,” said Booth, the division manager of Cincinnati’s Office of Human Relations.
“At the time that we stepped in the city had already cited this property owner for the hot water,” he said. “He made a promise. He didn’t comply. When we got involved, we got the city’s building inspections department to go back out. The work was not done. He was given a warning to get it done. And now he’s at the point where he’s getting fines that are increasing.”
Thomas isn’t the only tenant in her building having trouble.
Brandy Ellis said she has had problems since she moved into the building last October.
“We got here. The apartment wasn’t clean. The refrigerator did not work at all,” she said, adding that she still deals with a “bug infestation.”
“I have to run my stove along with my heat to keep my apartment warm. I just turned off my stove after running it for three days straight.”
The conditions are so bad, Ellis said, she won’t let her 11-year-old daughter stay in the apartment.
“I’ve placed her at my mom’s,” she said, “which makes it even harder.”
BWB Properties sued Ellis for eviction Dec. 24, alleging she failed to pay December rent of $750. Her husband, Andre DuBose Sr., said he and his wife are caught up on everything they owe and provided the I-Team with photos of money orders and deposit slips showing payments to BWB of $900 on Jan. 25 and $1,128 on Feb. 5.
The couple paid extra over the last two months to make up for a shortfall in December, DuBose said.
Ellis said she wants out but can’t afford a new deposit and rent. She said she and her husband recently told the landlord they will put their next month’s rent in escrow if the problems aren’t fixed.
“It’s not livable to me,” DuBose said. “Why can’t I have hot water? Why can’t I have heat? Why can’t I have stability in my home that I paid all this money for?”
Ellis and DuBose face a March 1 hearing in their eviction case, where DuBose said he hopes the magistrate will dismiss the case after seeing evidence that the couple has paid.
“I’m just tired of being treated like I’m not human,” DuBose said.
Thomas is appealing her eviction order. Magistrate Melissa West agreed on Feb. 5 to delay the execution of the order requiring Thomas to move. No date is set for the appeal.
‘No tenant should go through this’
As of Feb. 12, BWB still had outstanding repairs to make as ordered by city inspectors at 810 N. Fred Shuttlesworth Circle to fix leaking pipes and patch walls, ceilings and floors throughout the building. Five of the orders deal with Thomas’ apartment. A city official told the I-Team that hot water had been restored Feb. 12, after Booth intervened and the I-Team began asking questions.
Inspection records show the building’s hot water problems date back at least three months. Here’s a sample of inspection notes in chronological order:
Nov. 23: “I called management office and talked to Christopher about hot water issue. He stated they have been having an issue for about a week and a half and he has contacted numerous plumbing companies in the Cincinnati area, and everyone is booked up.”
Dec. 15: “Owner states hot water has been restored.”
Dec. 28: “Spoke to complainant hot water restored.”
Jan. 26: “Spoke to building manager he states they are working on restoring hot water, states he is trying to locate a hot water storage tank.”
Feb. 4: “Spoke to manager he says the water heater is fixed.”
Feb. 5: “Upon investigation it was determined a licensed plumber is required to make repairs. spoke to owner and maintenance as these repairs needed to happen today.”
Feb. 8: “Upon inspection found no work has taken place. water is still cold. water still leaking. recommend civil Fine.”
Feb. 12: "Hot water restored."
“No tenant should go through this, at all,” Booth said. “It does not take two weeks to put a hot water tank in.”
Thomas has been a strong advocate for herself, Booth said, and has been able to get help because she was willing to speak out.
She still has the housing choice voucher, more commonly known as Section 8, that helped her pay for the apartment on North Fred Shuttlesworth Circle.
Now she also is getting support from the CIncinnati Tenants Union and from Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency
Even so, she’s struggling to find an apartment so she and her sons can move.
“It’s so difficult to find a place to live right now. I’ve been calling everywhere,” Thomas said. “I’ve been looking. I’ve been calling people. A lot of people don’t take Section 8.”
It’s one more way that the story of BWB Properties sheds light on the challenges faced by so many in the region.
“The lack of affordable housing in our community was a problem before, and it’s worse now, and I hear from a lot of my clients they’re simply not able to find a place to move when they’re having to do that,” said DiNardo, the Legal Aid lawyer. “It’s just not working right now.”
WCPO 9 hears from dozens of people each day requesting consumer help, and it is impossible for us to resolve all the complaints we get about local apartments in bad condition. Here's how we advise people who are concerned about the conditions in their rental homes:
· File a complaint with your local health department, which will send an inspector to the property and can cite the landlord.
· If you think what your landlord is doing is illegal, file a complaint with the state attorney general. In Ohio, call 800-282-0515. In Kentucky, call 888-432-9257.
· Do not withhold rent in protest – that will almost certainly lead to eviction. You can put your rent in escrow, but you must do it the legal way. The Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati will let you talk with a lawyer for free to learn how to withhold rent legally. Call Legal Aid at 513-241-9400 or click this link to learn more: https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/tenant-rights-withhold-rent-state