Picture: Mount Auburn property owner Stanford Poole was fined $1,750 and incurred other expenses associated with damage to the side of his house at 2143 Rice Street, damage that occurred when the City forced the owner to demolish an adjacent garage. Photo by Dan Yount
By Dan Yount
The Cincinnati Herald
Mount Auburn resident property owner, and retired Cincinnati firefighter Stanford Poole has spent more than $3,000 on repairs to meet Cincinnati Building Code regulations on his two homes in the hilly neighborhood just south of the University of Cincinnati, a night in jail, more than $1,000 in court fines and costs, as well as inspections and legal costs. He has been in court 13 times to defend himself regarding the Building Code citations, and he has made more than 20 trips to the City Hall concerning these issues. It’s not over, for he faces additional fines and construction costs on repairs required by the City, repairs he says that resulted in one case from City requirements for an adjacent property to be razed.
Poole, who retired from the Cincinnati Fire Department after 28 years as a fire lieutenant with honors including a Key to the City, says he thinks what is happening to him, as well as those Mount Auburn property owners who were cited for code violations during one of the City’s Neighborhood Enhancement Programs (NEP), is targeted racism. Poole’s problems with the City began before the Mount Auburn NEP.
City Councilwoman (and mayoral candidate) Yvette Simpson spoke about the NEP citations at a recent meeting of Mount Auburn property owners at Woodward High School and at Taft Elementary School and is seeking a halt on them until the City Council can provide some guidelines for issuing them. Simpson, and Council members Wendell Young and Chris Seelbach have submitted a motion to the City Neighborhood Committee that calls for a halt on the issuance of citations until the City can get a handle on the situation and develop a program to assist homeowners in upgrading their properties. (See accompanying article.)
Poole owns rental properties at 2143 and 2160 Rice Street in Mount Auburn.
In a letter to City Council members, he requested an investigation into the Building Department and City Prosecutor’s Office, “as I do not believe these departments demonstrated the same principles that every City employee should abide by. These departments have an agenda to target myself and what I consider an attempt to execute a modern-day ‘eminent domain’ of prime real estate by fabricating violations and charges and attempting to accrue significant fines to try to take the property I have owned and maintained for over 30 years at no cost to the City.’’
The problems began, Poole said, when the owner of a garage that was attached to his rental home at 2143 Rice was required to repair or demolish it after it was damaged by a fallen tree limb. The company carrying out the demolition damaged the side of his home. Also, the adjacent property homeowner did not have a demolition permit.
Litigation was waived against the adjacent building owner, but Building Department officials cited Poole for the damage that was caused to his siding, Poole said. Yet, the City has still not corrected the hazardous drop off resulting from the removal of the garage.
Not long after the garage was removed, Poole was pulled over by a Hamilton County Sheriff’s deputy and issued a warrant for a building code violation for his property. He pleaded not guilty in court, explaining that the damage to his house was due to the negligence of the City’s Building Department in having the adjacent garage demolished. He complied with the citation by having siding added to the damaged side of the home. He still hopes to recover these expenses from the City, he said.
While dealing with this situation, Poole received a postcard from the City informing him an additional warrant had been issued against him regarding an issue City inspectors had with a joist that supported a second story porch at his house at 2160 Rice St. The porch was supported by wooden beams that ran into the house through the flooring on the second story, providing more than adequate support, he said.
In a meeting with an assistant city manager, Poole related that he felt he was being discriminated against as a minority property owner, and that inspectors were bringing other charges against him to cover up their mistake at the residence at 2143 Rice. After not getting anywhere with the assistant, Poole said he was taking his case to the city manager, but was advised that would not be possible, he said.
Back in court, this time regarding the porch at the second house, Poole presented the judge with a report from a licensed structural engineer who stated the porch was structurally sound. The judge refused to allow the report as evidence, and found Poole guilty of violating City code.
With no criminal record, on November 16, 2016, he was sentenced to jail where he spent a night, placed on probation for a year, fined, and had an electronic monitoring device placed on him for 180 days. He was fined $1,750 in the case involving the porch issue and $1,750 for the case involving the garage demolition, a case that had been previously dismissed.
Just recently, City inspectors conducted another inspection of his house at 2160 Rice, an inspection that cost him more than $300.
After 12 court appearances, spending time in jail, damage to one of his homes, and fines and out-of-pocket expenses of about $8,000, the harassment continues, he said.
He said he finds the inspectors “bullying, threatening, and constantly covering up for each other.’’ His case documents reveal this. After one inspector overruled another about whether the required work at 2143 Rice was completed, inspector Ed Cunningham referred his case for “criminal action,’’ which resulted in the jail sentence.
Poole’s case is being looked at by the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm based in Washington, D.C., that researches code enforcement issues nationwide. Joshua House, of the Institute for Justice, came to Cincinnati to meet with Poole and visit his properties. He says with some municipalities finding it more difficult to use eminent domain proceedings to gain control of potential development properties, they are turning to excessive code enforcement measures to force property owners out. Ohio is one state where eminent domain proceedings have become more limited, he said.
House said, “The problem of over criminalization of code enforcement is picking up nationwide. As the economy is picking up, cities want to develop faster and are turning to code violations to gain control of properties.’’
House he is not accusing Cincinnati of doing this. But he added property owners in Atlanta are also receiving sentences that involves probation, and jail time for code violations. “The intent of having code enforcement rules is to improve conditions in a community, not to put people in jail,’’ he said.
Poole concludes, “I spent about $8,000 clowning around with these folks from the City, now have a criminal record, and have not gotten back the two fines I paid the City.”
Duane Simpson, Poole’s attorney who came on board late in his code battle, was able to have the charges dropped against Poole.
He said the problem with the City’s housing code is its provisions for criminal actions, with a first-degree misdemeanor resulting in 180 days probation and a $1,000 fine.
“The City has made noncompliance a criminal procedure. Violators get to court thinking they can go in there and present their argument without an attorney, as Mr. Poole did, and they end up on probation or in jail,’’ he said. “Many of those cited do not have the financial means to bring houses up to code or do not understand what the inspectors are telling them. My experience is you can work with them and get those issues resolved.’’
Simpson says the Housing Court does have a diversion program that, for a $200 fee, allows them to come into code so they can pass inspection and have the case dismissed.
It would make more sense for the City to coordinate services for repairs and place a lien on properties if the owners do not comply, he said. The owners would be forced to be pay back the costs of those repairs the City advanced to them for the repairs when the property is sold.
Simpson says housing code violations should be handled as civil cases, not criminal cases.
The bigger issue is the focus on certain demographic areas and are the citations issued fairly, Simpson said. Are they citing people in just certain area? she asks. “There is a purpose for a housing code, but is the City handling it consistently?’’
Councilman Wendell Young noted that while the complaints stem from the NEP the purpose the NEPs s is to help rid communities of blighted areas, enhance properties, and help homeowners keep up their property values. “The idea is to have as many services as possible available to help the homeowners, and we do bring in building inspectors and they do write citations. This is as good thing in that some building owners do not take care of their properties, and those properties, especially those of absentee home owners, become a drag on a community, which draws crime and other negative influences to the community,’’ he said.
The downside of this is that some homeowners in Mount Auburn found themselves cited for in the properties they live in, Young said. He explained some of those homeowners do not have the finances to make the required repairs or improvements, and those people feel as though they are being driven out by people looking at Mt. Auburn as the next place for gentrification and redevelopment.
“The City denies that,’’ he said. “The City does not want to hurt or displace homeowners and force them out of their properties. Any program the City has should assist people in staying in their homes, and help make the neighborhood safe and attractive where people can take pride in where they live. Homeowners should never feel their government is their enemy.’’