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Council approves new landlord regulations, access to counsel for tenants facing eviction

City Hall as seen from Plum St. in Cincinnati, Ohio, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Jason Whitman
City Hall as seen from Plum St. in Cincinnati, Ohio, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.

Cincinnati City Council voted Wednesday to approve a limited program offering legal assistance to tenants facing eviction, as well as a few new regulations for landlords that fail to maintain housing in a livable condition.

About 60% of all Cincinnati households are renting. Of those, 75% are considered low to extremely low income, according to the latest federal data.

RELATED: Cincinnati sets consequences for illegal evictions

Access to Counsel

State law requires most landlords to hire an attorney in eviction court. That means 93% of landlords in Hamilton County eviction court are represented by a lawyer, but only 7% of tenants are. Tenants without an attorney are 84% more likely to lose housing.

Council Member Meeka Owens introduced the measure that creates an Access to Counsel program.

Director of Human Services Deanna White presented the program to council members in the Equitable Growth and Housing Committee Tuesday.

"The ability to have a lawyer in eviction court provides tenants with an opportunity to have membership in a club where the rules are not advertised and the consequences are the literal roof over your head," White said. "Every weekday morning in Room B of the Justice Center, tenants are evicted who have good defenses to their evictions, but don't have anyone beside them who knows the rules."

RELATED: Tenants without an attorney in local eviction court are 84% more likely to lose housing, study finds

The program will include partnerships with two organizations. The United Way will work with tenants who have a notice to leave the premises with the goal of preventing an eviction being filed with the courts. For tenants who already have an eviction court date, the Legal Aid Society will work to get the eviction dismissed and removed from the Clerk of Court's website.

All tenants will have access to financial help to pay back rent.

The latest city budget included $1 million for Access to Counsel, and the United Way contributed another $250,000. That amount is enough to help an estimated 240 tenants. Anything beyond that will need private funding, something White says is already in progress.

Tenants facing eviction will be eligible for the program if they owe back rent of between $2,500 and $3,000 and if their income is under 60% of the Area Median Income (AMI); that would be $60,660 a year for a family of four.

The tenant also needs to show they can pay rent moving forward. Priority will be given to households under 100% of the federal poverty level, with children, people over age 65, or people with disabilities.

Council approved the ordinance unanimously.

Landlord regulations

Mayor Aftab Pureval introduced three separate ordinances aimed at cracking down on landlords that don't maintain properties in a livable condition.

One makes landlords with unsafe properties pay for moving tenants to new housing. In the past, the city has taken on some of that cost or helped residents find other financial help. There's an exception for damage caused by the tenants; in those cases, the landlord will still be able to charge the renters for damage.

Another allows the city to hire contractors to fix essential services like furnaces and sewer pipes if the landlord fails to complete the necessary repairs. The city would bill the landlord for the cost.

Director of Buildings and Inspections Art Dahlberg says the goal is always for the property owner to take care of the repairs on their own.

"It's when they aren't doing that, they haven't done that, then we have to resort to finding other solutions," Dahlberg said Tuesday. "The concept here is that we have contractors that have been vetted through our purchasing and our procurement process that are on standby, and if we need to bring them in to solve an emergency problem, we can do so."

This step will only be taken in an emergency situation. A furnace breaking down, for example, would only constitute an emergency if the weather is cold enough to need the furnace.

The third ordinance will expand the Residential Rental Inspection Pilot Program, which started in 2021 in Avondale, CUF, and East Price Hill. The program aims to speed up the correction of code violations and prevent rental housing from deteriorating. If a property meets certain criteria — like a high number of code violations in a short period of time — the city will conduct regular inspections to keep the owner accountable.

The ordinance makes the pilot program permanent and expands it to West Price Hill, Westwood, College Hill and Madisonville. It also adds a new element: if a property in one of those neighborhoods qualifies for more frequent inspections, all other housing owned by the same landlord anywhere in the city will be reviewed as well.

The goal is to crack down on big, often out-of-town landlords who chronically neglect properties.

The committee approved the three separate ordinances in a single vote with Council Member Seth Walsh opposing, Liz Keating abstaining, and the remaining seven members supporting.

Walsh says he supports the goal of these programs but has concerns about implementation, recalling his time working with Community Development Corporations before joining council about a year ago.

"My experience on the outside working with the city of Cincinnati is those who comply and respond are those who end up under the eye of the city and actually end up bearing the repercussions," Walsh said. "As opposed to those who we're truly going after — [they] do LLC switches or they do XYZ, they ignore the summons, and ultimately, we just kind of give up on them."

In a final vote Wednesday, Keating voted in favor of all three ordinances, saying her concerns and questions had been satisfied. Walsh voted against the expansion of the inspection pilot program, but voted in favor of the other two ordinances.

Updated: December 6, 2023 at 4:25 PM EST
This article was first published Dec. 5, 2023 and has been updated to reflect council's vote.
Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.