MOUNT VERNON — City Council adopted a chronic nuisance abatement ordinance on Monday that local landlords say forces them to fix problems that the city and police cannot.
“You are passing the buck on us,” landlord and Realtor Bob Phillips told council during a Planning and Zoning Committee meeting. “It's sad that you folks here are making this happen instead of the police taking care of the problem.”
Citing one house where police, fire, and EMS responded 58 times, Councilman John Francis said the impetus behind the ordinance is to pinpoint houses that are continuing problems. When violations occur, notice will be given to the property owners as well as tenants.
“The whole purpose is to clean these places up, to take care of the criminal effect in the neighborhood and bring into responsibility the owners of those houses,” he said.
The ordinance is modeled after a Middletown ordinance that has been in place for three years. Councilman Matt Starr said that according to Middletown's city manager, the ordinance has been a “great success” with drug overdoses declining substantially. He did note that almost every one of Middletown's overdoses now occur in a vehicle or business.
“So the outcomes are there that we want, and that is that overdoses are coming down,” said Starr.
Phillips said he has tenants moving out of his rental units due to drug activity across the street.
“We call the police, but they are not allowed to do anything,” he said. “Now you guys are pushing this off on people that you think have money or have rentals and have wealth because they own these houses. … The police are handcuffed. It isn't going to get rid of the drug problem.”
Bill Ashcraft, whose rental properties include apartment complexes, agreed with Francis' comment that normally the tenant is not the problem. Rather, it is the people the tenant takes into the house.
Noting that it takes a while for the eviction process to unfold, especially if the tenant is through Metro Housing, Ashcraft was concerned about the violation fees that could accumulate while he was pursuing eviction. Violation fines start at $150 and go up to $1,000 for the fifth or more violation.
“I agree with Bobby [Phillips], you guys are passing the buck,” he said. “We're policing the water bills, giving the income tax department where our tenants live. I mean, we can't police any more of this. I don't want them in my apartment, and neither do the other landlords. But there's a process.
“These people are going to go somewhere when they get out of that house. We're going to move them to another spot. You've got to fix the problem; you just can't move them sideways and think it's going to fix it.”
Regarding the potential accumulated fees, Councilman Mike Hillier said that the ordinance provides for leniency if the landlord shows he or she is taking steps to fix the problem. Law Director Rob Broeren agreed there is “absolute defense if the landlord is taking steps to correct the problem.”
Responding to Starr's question as to how much a background check costs, landlord Andy Durbin said that often the background check pans out, but it's the people the tenant brings into the house who are the problem. Sometimes landlords do not know when law enforcement is called to a house.
“You want the landlords to do it [policing],” Phillips told council. “We need the police to do it.”
Allison Kaiser, a ReMax real estate agent who manages rental properties, said that homeless people are more likely to not get the attention they need and that the homeless problem in Mount Vernon is spreading to Apple Valley.
“So we can evict them … and A through M on our lease covers all of these things … I want you to think very clearly about what you are doing,” she said.
Mulberry Street resident Christina Hamilton said she is concerned how the ordinance affects friends, relatives, or grandparents who are trying to help drug users get back on their feet.
“Either by more people coming into their house because they are unrentable or because the police in exercising discretion will find someone to enact this ordinance upon,” she said.
She said that her research shows that in Cuyahoga County, which has a similar ordinance, eviction rates are up and housing stock has decreased tremendously.
“In Middletown … there were a number of things in place to prevent those consequences from happening,” she said.
Those measures include:
- Learning to correctly exercise police discretion in the wake of a legal suit
- The city manager meeting with all stakeholders to make sure everyone understood the ordinance and that people had somewhere to go
- A wealth of drug rehab resources
“That's not really here,” said Hamilton. “We have a lack of resources. People wait for beds. Part of the people who are trying to help them are the people who are letting them into their home.
“Yes, there are negative consequences, but those negative consequences are much less than when they are homeless and on the street.”
“This ordinance is not an excuse to no longer have compassion,” said Starr. “I am hoping that our law enforcement personnel and our emergency personnel continue to go out and find treatment for people who need treatment. That's assuring the success we want. The sooner we can get someone in treatment, the better.
“There are unintended consequences to everything, but the unintended consequences so far have been neighborhoods.”
“We certainly do not want to create a class of people who are considered unrentable, and therefore they have no options for renting because they have developed a reputation for getting into trouble through this ordinance,” said Councilman Sam Barone. “I take comfort in the fact that ordinances like this are subject to revision and technical correction down the road.”
“We have to remember that misbehavior is an infringement on the neighborhood and society,” said Councilwoman Nancy Vail, noting that chronic nuisance properties are a problem for neighborhoods. “Somehow people have to learn that everybody has to learn we have to live among all of us in society.”