December 19, 2014

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Lorain blight battle expected to grow

Correction: Due to incorrect information provided by the city of Lorain, this story contained incorrect information on the number of inspections performed. The information has since been corrected.

LORAIN — Wednesday’s housing docket at Lorain Municipal Court had just seven cases and was over in 45 minutes.

“Smooth as silk,” Magistrate Chris Cook said after it ended. But things may be getting bumpy soon due to Lorain’s anti-blight initiative.

About 55 cases are on the June 25 docket, part of at least 300 cases ready for prosecution by the city. Roughly 500 more are expected in the next several months as re-inspections of cited properties occur, according to Rey Carrion, director of the Department of Building, Housing and Planning, formerly the Community Development Department.

While significant, it’s substantially less than what Law Director Pat Riley told City Council on April 7. Riley estimated some 3,000 cases in the next six to 12 months. Carrion said Riley’s estimate was high because of a double-count of statistics.

Carrion said up to 1,500 cases are anticipated in the next six to 12 months.

Riley’s announcement had Judge Mark Mihok considering asking Council to approve hiring a part-time magistrate and part-time clerk, but Mihok said he is holding off for now.

About 50 cases can be handled per docket, Mihok said. Dockets may be expanded to two or three per month to handle cases.

Cook said the court can handle about 150 cases per month.

“If it goes to thousands, then we need some help,” he said.

While Carrion said about 60 percent of homeowners comply after initial inspections, he expects the significant growth in the caseload after re-inspections.

“They’ll have a difference of opinion in terms of needing somebody right away,” he said of judges.

Increased enforcement began in July 2012 with the formation of the Nuisance Inspection Task Force. The team of four health inspectors and two building inspectors made code inspection walks twice per week, checking exteriors of properties.

The task force has since been folded into the Department of Building, Housing and Planning, according to Carrion. Enforcement also includes annual point-of-sale inspections, which began in January.

Point-of-sale inspections require buyers or sellers to rectify violations before sales are allowed and can involve establishing escrow accounts to pay for repairs. Carrion said about 245 point-of-sale inspections have been done this year.

Of the 245, 99 have received certificates of inspection, 37 have received conditional certificates and 112 escrow accounts have to be established to pay for repairs needed to obtain certificates.

The department hired two housing inspectors in March, bringing the total to three along with five building inspectors. Building inspectors, who primarily do commercial inspections as well as point-of-sale inspections, are certified by the state.

They can inspect interiors or exteriors. Housing inspectors primarily do exterior inspections and have less certification.

Conducting exterior inspections is often easier than notifying property owners if violations are found. Cook said many don’t live at the properties cited by building or housing inspectors and some live out of state, delaying notification.

From 2002 through April 1, 159 code violation letters were returned to the sender, according to department statistics. Absentee landlords have been a big problem in Lorain, which has a higher than average foreclosure rate.

In March, one in every 514 properties in Lorain was in foreclosure, according to Realty Trac, a real estate website. The Ohio rate was one in 663 and the national rate was one in 1,221.

While tracking down property owners can be slow, officials said about 90 percent of cases that go to court are resolved without a trial. Officials said they try to work with owners who want to comply but can’t afford it. Some are elderly and on fixed incomes.

Those who can’t afford compliance are referred to department programs that offer low-cost loans or grants. “We’ve had to be creative to help some folks,” Cook said.

While the city wants to work with those who can’t afford repairs, more cases may make it more difficult, said Assistant Prosecutor R.J. Budway. “If we have 50 cases in June, we’re not going to be able to handle it with kid gloves like when you have seven,” Budway said.

Property owner Richard Bohoric, whose case was handled Wednesday, said he supports Lorain’s efforts to reduce blight, but said inspectors sometimes overdo it. “Sometimes they get a little too nitpicky,” Bohoric said.

Bohoric paid $110 in court fees to settle a complaint over a storage building he owns at 1441 E. 28th St. The building had cracked sealant around building windows. Bohoric said he intended to repair the decay but was waiting for it to get warmer.

Carrion said inspectors are enforcing the “basic, minimum standards” of Lorain’s property code adopted in 2004.

“If we wanted to be picky, we could put a lot more than we’re putting on our reports,” he said.

Some property owners have complained that inspectors have been more aggressive with them than dealing with the Spitzer Plaza, a blighted former hotel that closed in 2005. The building is owned by Alan Spitzer, a developer who owns at least 59 properties in Lorain County. Some City Council members have called for demolishing the building.

Carrion said Spitzer representatives have addressed most of the violations at the building, but he plans to meet this week with them about repairing a crumbling facade at the building at 301 E. Erie Ave. Netting was put up to prevent bricks from falling. Carrion said inspectors don’t play favorites.

“My parents have an immaculate home, but I tell them, ‘Make sure there’s nothing out of place because I will cite you, too,’” he said. “It goes for everyone.”

Both Carrion and judges say they’re committed to enforcement, regardless of the caseload.

“We will get the job done,” Cook said. “Whatever it takes.”

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.

Blight Fight

Lorain’s increased housing enforcement has created a backlog of cases. From July 2012 through April 1, 2014:

  • 3,884 property inspections
  • 2,060 properties compliant
  • 1,250 passed original inspection
  • 850 came into compliance after being cited
  • 1,415 homes need to be re-inspected
  • 2,674 citations issued
  • 96 citations have been referred for prosecution
  • 78 properties were cited that have been demolished
  • 71 properties having outstanding extensions
  • 159 code violation letters have been returned
  • 1,415 properties need to be re-inspected

SOURCE: City of Lorain