Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Chronic nuisance ordinance to be reviewed...again

A deeper look into Chapter 761 of the Cincinnati Municipal Code, the chronic nuisance ordinance, is expected to be in front of City Council by April 21.

The report, to be issued by City Manager Milton Dohoney, has been requested in a motion drafted by Councilmember Charlie Winburn and adopted by Council last Wednesday.

Specifically, the motion asks for the report to include:

  • If the disparity in nuisance enforcement actions in the City's five police districts is truly reflective of the distribution of nuisance premises,
  • How chronic nuisance premises are identified,
  • What criteria trigger the escalation of enforcement methods,
  • The criteria for considering a nuisance premises abated, and
  • The number of chronic nuisance premises abated since the ordinance was enacted in 2006.
The motion also directs City administration to provide a monthly update to Council's Public Safety Committee on enforcement actions and progress, by police district and neighborhood, for the top 50 chronic nuisance premises. The City would also work with the Community Driven Crime Control Coalition, which includes Bond Hill, North Avondale, Over-the-Rhine, West End, and Westwood, to reduce and contain problem properties in their neighborhoods.

Challenges to the ordinance

Since 2006, several challenges have been made to Chapter 761, which bills owners of multi-family properties for excessive police calls to their properties. Violation of the law is a fourth-degree misdemeanor, with additional offenses classified as third- and second-degree misdemeanors.

In 2007, the Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Apartment Association (GCNKAA) and Real Estate Investors Association of Greater Cincinnati filed a lawsuit against the City, claiming that the law passes the responsibilities of both the police department and criminals off to third-party property owners.

So far they have not been granted an enforcement injunction and the case has not gone to trial. Instead, the judge sent the matter to mediation.

As part of the mediation, changes appeared before City Council in October 2008 that modified the ordinance to establish different service call thresholds for buildings between 100 and 199 units and buildings of 200 or more units; to remove curfew, truancy and kidnapping calls from the list of abatement triggers; to establish a civil fine system instead of a system based on time spent responding to calls; and to remove criminal prosecution as a penalty for violation.

Two weeks after the ordinance appeared, Council's Vibrant Neighborhoods Committee requested more information on the criteria used to determine when a property owner had implemented an abatement plan in a timely manner and had used "reasonable efforts" to address the problem.

Around that same time, North Avondale Neighborhood Association (NANA) President Frank Newbauer and 3rd Vice President and Landlord Accountability Chair Michelle Baxter sent a letter to City Council requesting information similar to the issues covered in Winburn's recent motion.

The City's Law Department made further revisions, and another ordinance was introduced in January 2009.

NANA voted to oppose those changes, saying that 11 neighborhood properties had received notification letters since the program began, and that there had been more than 351 additional calls for service. Violent crimes in North Avondale rose 95 percent between 2007 and 2008.

According to NANA, the changes to Chapter 761 would remove enforcement authority from the police chief and eliminate criminal prosecution, giving problem landlords a free pass and failing to define procedures for altering the program based upon its ineffectiveness.

"NANA is fed up with private interests being put above public interests," Baxter said. "The lawsuit brought against the City by GCNKAA is not a good enough reason to revise the whole law to fit the interest of one party unless those changes are good for the entire community."

No vote was ever taken by City Council, and all ordinances related to Chapter 761 were indefinitely postponed by November 2009.

Fulfilling its purpose

A statement accompanying the motion said that clarification of the ordinance will allow for the intended purpose and outcomes of the law – ridding neighborhoods of irresponsible landlords – to be achieved within the next 24 months.

It would do so by establishing chronic nuisance activity thresholds and escalation triggers for all police districts and determining the circumstances and criteria for referring property owners to housing court for prosecution if the police chief's nuisance abatement order is not obeyed.

"The City Administration has been petitioned by various neighborhoods to abate chronic nuisance premises by strict and timely enforcement of applicable laws," the statement says. "The purpose of chronic nuisance abatement legislation is to assist victims of crime and penalize those who commit crimes and those who permit conditions to exist that give rise to crime or excessive service calls to police."

Councilmembers Laure Quinlivan and Cecil Thomas and Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls voted against the motion.

Councilmember Winburn could not be reached for comment.

Previous reading on BC:
Westwood wants problem property abated, redeveloped (2/11/09)
City will not add SFD to chronic nuisance ordinance (11/26/07)