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Operation Slumlord Smackdown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I. INTRODUCTION

 

The centerpiece of my platform is a plan I call "Operation Slumlord Smackdown." This plan aims to ensure that the 80% of Athenians who rent their homes are protected from predatory slumlord practices and enjoy housing that's safe and clean, private, more energy efficient, and more affordable. Specifically, Operation Slumlord Smackdown will

  • strengthen enforcement of the City Housing Code

  • strengthen the City Housing Code itself

  • enable renters to make informed housing decisions

  • prevent landlords from passing the costs of correcting decades of non-compliance onto current tenants

This plan was developed in response to my own experiences living as a renter for the past 20 years of my life (13 of those years right here in Athens), my studies of housing code enforcement practices in Athens and elsewhere, the results of a door-to-door survey of Athens tenants conducted by members of the Athens Tenant Union in 2017, and with additional input from Athens City Council candidate Ellie Hamrick.

Operation Slumlord Smackdown is endorsed by me, by Ellie Hamrick, and by Chris Monday, who, like Ellie, is also running for 1 of the 3 at-large seats on Athens City Council. Like 80% of Athens residents, Ellie, Chris and I are all renters ourselves. In contrast, every current Athens officeholder is a homeowner, and several are also landlords, including the two incumbent Democratic council candidates Chris and Ellie are running against, Sarah Grace and Pete Kotses.

In the 13 years I've lived in Athens I've rented 13 different homes from 14 different landlords. I've also rented in Portland, Orgeon; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Atlanta, Georgia. I've taken landlords to court in Athens and Pittsburgh and won both times. In 2008, I got the City of Athens to criminally convict a landlord for housing code violations. In 2010 and 2011, I studied housing code enforcement practices in Midwestern and Appalachian college towns, including: Athens, Oxford, and Bowling Green in Ohio; Morgantown, West Virginia; Pittsburgh, State College, and the City of Indiana in Pennsylvania; and West Lafayette, Indiana. In 2017, I co-founded the Athens Tenant Union.

So I know from firsthand experience that Athens is an absolute paradise for predatory slumlords -- and that the current Athens city government is a slumlord's best friend.

Although 80% of Athenians live in rental housing, 100% of current elected city officeholders are homeowners, and several are also landlords. And this government comprised of unusually affluent homeowners and landlords

  • won’t give the city Code Enforcement office the resources it needs to do its job; 

  • won't ensure safe living conditions for the 80% of city residents who live in rental housing; 

  • won't strengthen the housing code to prevent landlords from stealing security deposits and violating tenant privacy;

  • won't force landlords to adequately insulate their properties in order to reduce tenant utility bills and the city’s carbon footprint;

  • won't force landlords to fulfill their legal responsibilities to maintain the sidewalks in front of their properties, resulting in dangerous conditions for pedestrians in many areas of town (perhaps worst on the West Side), and for disabled community members most of all;

  • won't even allow tenants to easily access information about landlords! instead, until very recently the Code Enforcement office kept all of its inspection and violation records on paper like it was 1975, and still no violation records are available online. So it is impossible for tenants to determine which landlords are the best and which are the worst. 

According to Code Enforcement's own 2017 and 2018 annual reports, "limited staffing results in the Office of Code Enforcement operations being complaint driven." That means in order for the understaffed Code Enforcement office to be able to respond to tenant complaints, regularly scheduled annual rental housing inspections are kept as brief and superficial as possible. Typically, inspectors only spend a couple minutes pressing test buttons on smoke detectors (without even bothering to check the detectors’ expiration dates) before moving on to the next house or apartment. Thus by being "complaint driven," our city government is effectively passing off the burden of enforcing the City Housing Code onto tenants themselves, most of whom are first or second-time renters in their early twenties, usually facing off against wealthy, well-practiced slumlords. 

And when Code Enforcement does identify violations, no fines are issued. Instead, the city typically gives landlords more than 45 days to correct violations -- violations tenants are forced to live with during that time -- before any fines may be issued.

 

And even when fines are issued, they are meager slaps on the wrist. City Code calls for landlords to be fined $100 per violation, per day -- and to be charged with each day of each violation as a separate criminal offense. But as City Law Director Lisa Eliason recently confirmed, that's not what happens. What happens instead is what happened to my landlord in 2008. After my landlord had forced me to live with nearly 2 dozen code violations for 5 months of my 12-month lease, the city prosecutor at the time (none other than current City Law Director Lisa Eliason, whose husband, Lenny Eliason, has been Athens County Commissioner since 1998) recommended my landlord only be charged with a single minor misdemeanor criminal offense and fined a paltry $150 total, which former Athens Municipal Court Judge William Grimm then reduced to $75 upon my landlord's conviction.

 

In an Athens News article published August 29, Law Director Eliason confirmed this practice of drastically under-charging landlords for code violations is still her standard operating procedure today, despite the fact that City Code currently stipulates that each day of each violation is a "complete and separate offense." Laughably, Eliason told the Athens News that she disregards our City Code and drastically reduces its stated penalties for slumlords because it saves paperwork, and because she believes that current Municipal Court Judge Todd Grace (himself a landlord along with his wife, City Council member Sarah Grace) would reduce the penalties anyway, if Eliason didn't do it for him.  

Of course, Eliason's justifications are absurd. Improving tenant safety is more important than reducing paperwork for Eliason and the Municipal Court. Furthermore, anyone even vaguely familiar with our court system knows that when a prosecutor is worried a judge may reduce charges beyond what the prosecutor thinks is appropriate, prosecutors will begin by over-charging in order to give themselves some wiggle room. The prosecutor won't make the absolute bare minimum of charges their starting point. And a similar process is true with regard to defendants. If a prosecutor wants to more quickly and easily win a conviction, they'll offer the defendant a plea bargain, in which the defendant agrees to plead "no contest" and be found guilty of lesser charges in exchange for not risking being found guilty of greater charges at trial. But that's not possible when a prosecutor starts out by giving the defendant the best deal possible by charging at the lowest possible level -- or, in Eliason's case, by starting even lower than the lowest possible level stipulated by our housing code. 

 

But before we even get to the point of considering fines and criminal charges -- imagine if city authorities found you parked at an expired meter and gave you 45 whole days to come up with a quarter before you faced any fine at all! It would be like getting caught speeding on the highway and the cop giving you 45 days to slow down before getting a ticket! And we all know that if we left a single car parked at an expired meter for 4 or 5 months (never mind 2 dozen cars parked at 2 dozen expired meters for 4 months), we'd be facing much more than just a $75 fine. But Athens city officials like Eliason like to apply very different standards to their slumlord pals than they apply to the rest of us. And this obscenely biased and unethical behavior needs to stop.

While an expired parking meter doesn't put anyone's life at risk, the city's failure to adequately enforce the Housing Code does. Just look at the Carriage Hill (now Campus Heights) Apartments Fire of 2017. On January 30, 2017 code inspectors notified the Carriage Hill landlord of multiple faulty smoke detectors and at least one expired fire extinguisher. But the city didn’t schedule a follow-up inspection to check whether these violation had been corrected until February 27  -- one day after Building 12 of Carriage Hill / Campus Heights burned down, costing 41 tenants their homes and belongings, and putting their lives in jeopardy.

The Carriage Hill / Campus Heights Apartments Fire happened on Mayor Patterson’s watch. Yet in the two and a half years since, neither Mayor Patterson or the current members of Athens City Council have done anything to improve housing safety for 80% of city residents.

Instead, when I started talking to the local media about how severely under-staffed and over-burdened the Code Enforcement office is, Mayor Patterson began lying to the public about the number of inspectors and the number of annual inspections. He told the Athens News there are 6 rental housing inspectors (then he later told the paper there are 7 such inspectors), when all available documentation – from the Athens City website, to the Code Enforcement Office’s annual reports, to the rental housing inspection schedule – states there are only 4 rental housing inspectors, just 3 of whom are performing inspections at any given time. And Patterson also told the Athens News there were 5,625 rental housing inspections performed in 2018, when in reality there were more than 8,000 rental housing inspections performed in 2018, and 10,000 rental housing inspections performed in 2017. In this way, Patterson tried to give the impression that double the actual workforce is performing half the actual workload, and that, as a result, the Code Enforcement office is twice as well equipped as it actually is to ensure safe housing for tenants.

 

In August, Mayor Patterson finally admitted he'd given the Athens News and its readers two falsely inflated numbers of 6 or 7 rental housing inspectors. But he only admitted this after the Athens News had independently verified my claim that there were just 4 such inspectors. And this didn't happened until 5 months after Patterson first began making these false claims. Had he not been forced to correct his false claims, he would have been content for everyone to go on believing them -- not exactly a sign of personal integrity from a mayor who was previously censured by a professional ethics committee for misrepresenting his academic record when he applied for tenure as an OU psychology professor.

Then on August 19 of this year -- after I had spent 5 months running for mayor with Operation Slumlord Smackdown as the centerpiece of my platform (alongside OSS supporter and fellow independent socialist candidate for city office, City Council At-Large candidate Ellie Hamrick) -- Mayor Patterson and Athens City Council suddenly began discussing the possibility of substantially increasing landlords' penalties for housing code violations, and also the possibility of putting landlords' violation records online. These two ideas were lifted directly from Operation Slumlord Smackdown. But in presenting these ideas, no one in city government made any mention of OSS or Ellie or me. (Particularly in a college town, that sort of thing is known as plagiarism.)

What makes this especially ironic is that our slum housing crisis isn’t anything new -- and neither are the incumbent politicians suddenly talking about addressing it. Mayor Patterson has been in city government since 2012; Council member Chris Fahl since 2010; Council member Jeffrey Risner since 2012; and Law Director Lisa Eliason since the early 1990s. They’ve known about these problems for decades. They’ve helped perpetuate these problems for years. Indeed, according to a campaign finance report provided by the Athens County Board of Elections, when Patterson ran for mayor in 2015 40% of his campaign donations came from notorious slumlord John Wharton, owner of University Off-Campus Housing. Another substantial donation came from real estate developer Bruce Wentworth. Save for a single $25 donation that came from a retired marketing professor, all of Patterson's 2015 campaign donations either came from a landlord, a real estate developer, or a business owner.

But now --even after Patterson tried to sweep these problems under the rug with fake numbers five months earlier-- his fellow longtime incumbent politicians are suddenly acting like they care about the 80% of Athenians who live in rental housing. The reason for their sudden epiphany is clear. These longtime office holders are scared of finally being held accountable by voters, now that working class tenants including me, Ellie, and Council candidate Chris Monday are all running for office with pro-tenant platforms -- and because we're running as independents so that our races will be decided in November, when most tenants are actually here to vote. 

So what we’re seeing from incumbent city officeholders now is like that Saturday Night Live sketch from 2016, where Hillary Clinton tries to transform herself into a Jewish socialist with a Brooklyn accent who likes to shout and wave his arms around. What’s next -- Steve Patterson getting a perm and growing a beard? 

And as if that wasn't bad enough, Ellie Hamrick and I pointed out in our comments to Council on September 3 that unless the city adequately staffs the Code Enforcement office and gets Eliason to start charging slumlords according to our housing code's stated penalties, Council's current ordinance will be nothing more than empty symbolism that fails to help tenants, because it won't get enforced. 

While I'm glad my campaign for mayor is already changing city policy for the better, Operation Slumlord Smackdown is a far more substantial and comprehensive plan than just the two items city officials recently plagiarized from it (only one of which they're discussing implementing). And unlike my opponent Mayor Patterson, I have a decades-long, proven track records of fighting for housing justice. So I'm confident voters will still see the clear difference between Patterson and me -- as well as the clear difference between Ellie and Chris and their opponents, and the clear difference between all three of us new independent candidates and the entire corrupt political establishment we're challenging. 

It's time for the people of Athens to defeat self-serving politicians and their slumlord pals!

So, without further ado, here is the full current text of Operation Slumlord Smackdown.

OPERATION SLUMLORD SMACKDOWN

(July 11, 2019 edition)

I.) For the First Time Ever, Enable Enforcement of Existing City Housing Code

     1. Increase rental permit fee to fund increasing rental housing inspections program to   

         adequate level.

     2. Hire 4 more code officers assigned exclusively to rental housing inspection program.

 

     3. Create new rental housing inspection checklist to match improved actual inspections.

 

     4. Ensure that the correction of code violations is verified in a timely manner (i.e. not put off for

         3 -4 weeks), taking into account severity of each violation.

 

     5. Re-train code officers in new inspection procedures sufficient to actually enforce housing

         code.

 

     6. Institute satisfactory tenant evaluations of inspectors (via survey form) as one criterion of

         determining code officer job performance and continued employment.

 

     7. Require all rental housing leases issued in Athens to include housing code overview,

         information on violations reporting procedures and tenants’ legal rights, and require

         landlords to submit signed copies of such leases (or this portion of them) to Code

         Enforcement; revoke rental permits of any non-compliant landlords for a period of not less

         than one year.

II.) Strengthen Housing Code

     1. Immediately issue citation and fine for any code violation found within an occupied rental

         housing unit upon that violation’s discovery; end practice of giving landlords weeks or even

         months to correct violations before imposing any fines; do not leave to Law Director or

         Prosecutor’s discretion whether or not to fine – simply issue ticket with appropriate fine

         amount and provide for court hearing, just like in the case of a speeding or parking ticket.

     2. Increase fine amounts for certain code violations.

     3. Institute a point system to rank violations by severity.

     4. Increase annual rental permit fees for repeat offender landlords who exceed certain point

         threshold; award modest decrease in annual permit fees to landlords for each subsequent

         year their maintain point total below certain threshold.

     5. Increase annual rental permit fees of landlords for each small claims court decision

         deeming they have improperly withheld any portion of a tenant’s security deposit.

​     6. Increase fine amount per violation for repeat offender landlords who exceed certain point

         threshold.

     7. Institute system for enforcing requirement that landlords and/or their agents give proper

         notice to tenants before entering interior of tenants’ homes and before accessing the

         exterior of home above 1st floor; impose substantial fines on noncompliant landlords.

     8. Institute process for revoking rental permits of egregious repeat offender landlords, in which

         after landlord passes maximum points threshold all rent for the remainder of the lease term

         (at particular properties or all that landlord’s properties) will be paid by tenants to Code

         Enforcement rental housing inspections fund, and landlord will not be able to apply for new

         rental permit until at least one year after current lease term has ended.

     9. Institute standards for minimum insulation / weatherization / pest access prevention of all

         rental housing units.

     10. Require all rental housing units to meet or exceed minimum housing standards required by

           HUD for Section 8 housing.

     11. Require builders of high end rental housing to provide a certain amount of low income

           housing.

III.) Enable Renters to Make Informed Housing Decisions

     1. Digitize code enforcement inspection & violation records currently stored on paper.

     2. Compile above records and related court documents into free, public, online database,

         searchable by property or landlord.

     3. Provide opportunity for tenants to upload reviews of landlords and properties to this online

         database, where reviews will then be accessible alongside Code Enforcement and court

         records.

     4. Require landlords to include description of this database and its web address in all leases.

IV.) Prevent Landlords from Passing the Costs of Correcting Decades of Non-Compliance onto Current Tenants

     1. Prohibit “no cause” evictions.

     2. Institute a two-year rent freeze in all registered rental housing units in the City of Athens.

     3. Follow-up on the two-year rent freeze and then ongoing rent control that caps the amount

         landlords can annually increase rent at 2% above inflation.

V.) Overhaul or Eliminate Housing Board

     1. Any city entity empowered to hear and decide upon a landlord’s appeal of a code violation

         penalty will solicit and accept testimony from tenants, who will be afforded the opportunity to

         be represented by legal counsel, including by a public defender (or less formal equivalent

         thereof, such as an advocate) at no cost if tenants demonstrate that they meet certain

         financial criteria.

A founding member of the Athens Tenant Union, Damon Krane explains the group's structure at an ATU outreach meeting in September 2017.