The suite of new laws have been in the works for two years and faced scrutiny from Council and housing experts since. Such laws center on a simple premise: to keep vacant homes up-to-date, and to not let rental quality wane due to irresponsible landlords.
Criticism was on display at Monday's committee meeting, when Building & Housing Director Sally Martin-O'Toole faced questions from council members who worried that the code package could result in a legal backlash or a negative dent in Cleveland's already struggling housing inventory.
"I don't want to see that we start ticketing investment property owners, and they get together, some civil lawsuit comes, and it shuts down the whole Building & Housing Department," Ward 16 Councilman Brian Kazy told O'Toole. "I don't want to set ourselves up for being shut down in the future."
"I personally just want to make sure we don't inadvertently impact them," Griffin said. "So people aren't just walking away from entire neighborhoods."
Ward 9 Councilman Kevin Conwell went for the more theatrical. "I'm afraid of that huge sucking sound," he said, producing a loud whoosh and motioning with his hands.
The meat of the legislation centers on out-of-state investors—those in California or Israel—being required to have a "local agent in charge," a representative for them based in Cleveland who could be held responsible, if need be, if their properties' grass grew over eight inches, noxious weeds overrun their yards, or for a laundry list of other code violations.
Such laws will also force owners to register their vacant properties (for the same fee, $70, as occupied homes), and have them inspected within one year of transfer. Six percent of Cleveland's stock is vacant, Martin-O'Toole was quick to point out, the majority of those properties being classified as 'D' or 'F' quality, which, she said, decrease the surrounding value of the block by an average of 10 percent.
As the head of South Euclid's housing department from 2008 to 2022, Martin-O'Toole garnered a small following from likeminded advocates for her work demolishing hundreds of vacant properties and holding shady LLCs accountable.
More progressive council folk, like Ward 12 Councilwoman Rebecca Maurer, Ward 13 Councilman Kris Harsh and Ward 3 Councilman Kerry McCormack, continued to express their heartfelt backing at Monday's committee meeting, fueled by emotional input as to why Residents First was so sorely needed.
Maurer herself recalled an episode in Tremont, part of her ward. A house near West 14th St. had suffered a bad fire recently; yet the building sat vacant and untouched for months.
Maurer recalled the confused ire of one of her constituents. "They were just beside themselves: 'You're on City Council, and you can't do anything?'" she said. "The bad reputation was all over us."
Martin-O'Toole, flanked by Senior Policy Advisor Austin Davis and Assistant Law Director Dave Roberts, was unflappable in her pursuit of Residents First's passage—that Building & Housing could fund the new inspectors, that neighborhoods would be beautified over the years with the irresponsible types weeded out.
"I wasn't required to do half the job," she told Griffin. "I was hired to do the whole job. This body has to decide how that looks. But I believe what's in front of me are the tools that I need to do the whole job."
Griffin said that Council will revisit portions of Residents First, like its Point-of-Sale proposal and its requirement for interior inspections, sometime in March or April. An amendment to strike interior inspections from legislation, brought by Ward 2 Councilman Kevin Bishop, was shut down by a 5-3 vote.
The bulk of new laws will go into effect this spring.
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