A Change of Course for Cleveland’s Housing Court

An Ohio Supreme Court ruling complicates the efforts of Cleveland’s Housing Court to punish negligent owners of vacant properties, but actions in the state legislature provide new paths to holding them accountable.

A vacant property in Cleveland edkohler

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The foreclosure crisis has resulted in record numbers of vacant homes in neighborhoods across the country, creating a host of problems for the residents who remain. And the problem is compounded, particularly in weak-market cities, when the owners of large vacant property inventories fail to maintain those properties, leaving them littered with garbage, overgrown with weeds, structurally deficient, or worse, violating local laws, and sticking cities with the costs.

Over the past several years, Judge Raymond Pianka of Cleveland’s Housing Court has made headlines for his innovative efforts to hold irresponsible landowners accountable for the condition of their neglected and blighting properties.

One of his tactics has been to criminally try corporations whose large inventories of properties violate local housing codes. And because many of these corporations fail to appear in court – the Judge has encountered defendants from China, Russia, and Egypt in the last month alone – he has taken to holding “trials in absentia,” which allow him to rule against and fine these corporations even if they don’t show up.

Now the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that holding criminal trials without the presence of the defendant violates state law, reining in the Housing Court’s ability to punish criminally negligent companies that refuse to respond to a summons or warrant.

Judge Pianka has pivoted – holding corporations that fail to appear more than once in contempt of court and charging them with daily fines – but the Ohio Supreme Court ruling does point to the need for “outside the courthouse” strategies.

“In my opinion,” said Joe Schilling of Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute, “this ruling exposes weaknesses not with the Housing Court, but with Cleveland’s code enforcement system. Because city prosecutors have not been strategically filing civil nuisance abatement actions, the judge was forced to push the boundaries of criminal law.”

And while Cleveland’s Supreme Court ruled that Judge Pianka had pushed too far, they also seemed to intimate that he should keep pushing. In her concurring opinion, Justice Maureen O’Connor urged Ohio legislators to pass a bill that would provide the judge with a legal way to force corporations to show up in court, and, in fact, the Ohio House of Representatives took steps to do so just days later.

In the meantime, local advocates stress that while trials in absentia can no longer take place, irresponsible property owners can still be prosecuted in Housing Court successfully.

“Commercial homeowners whose business practices include refusal to comply with housing codes can take little comfort in this ruling,“ said Kermit Lind, a clinical law professor at Cleveland State University. “This Court’s policy has consistently put compliance with the housing laws that protect the health, safety, and welfare of Cleveland residents ahead of business interests and ahead of punitive sentences. Absentee owners simply need to see that compliance with those laws is what is required of them.”

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Tags: governanceblightcleveland

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