ELYRIA — The space between the floor and the ceiling at Christina Hoffman’s rental home left barely enough room for them to stand up straight.
Elyria City Councilmen Mark Jessie, D-3rd Ward, Marcus Madison, D-5th Ward, and Tom Callahan, D-at large, crouched beneath the wooden beams and trained their eyes on the spots Deputy Housing Inspector Ray Landon pointed out with a flashlight beam.
“Oh, wow,” Callahan said as he gingerly stepped through the basement. “How long has this been this way?”
Langdon was noting several things. The lower floor’s weak and rotting support beams, the shoddy repair job Langdon called ‘nothing but a Band-Aid fix that wouldn’t last long,’ and the standing water beneath the hot water tank that was rusting the base.
“If you can really get back here — watch your head — you can see the duct work back here is sagging so the gas can’t release from the house properly,” he said. “I would call that a major health and safety issue.”
With some 7,000 rental units in Elyria — that’s the best estimate available and is several years old — Hoffman’s home is not the worst inspectors have ever seen, but the case is unique, because Hoffman, despite the fear of eviction, is pushing the city to help. She believes that, had her home been inspected before she moved in back in December 2013, the problems she is having now would have been found.
“I knew there were some things wrong when I moved in, but I expected them fixed within a couple of months,” she said. “I didn’t know the severity of some of the issues. I thought they were all superficial, like needing new carpet. I wasn’t expecting standing water in the basement and mice.”
Langdon was in the Furnace Street home Friday conducting a follow-up inspection after Hoffman, the mother of two teenage daughters, complained to the city’s Building Department that her home had numerous health and safety violations, most of which were unaddressed by her landlord.
Julia Melvin of Piqua is the listed homeowner. The city sent Melvin a notice of violation on April 15 detailing the conditions of the home. It was tracked through certified mail as delivered on April 24.
The councilmen came to observe the inspection because city officials are contemplating starting a fee-based registration and inspection program for rental properties. Even with weeks of discussion, the 11 members of Council have not been able to reach a consensus on what the city should do. Three members of Council decided they needed to see what some of their tenants see before making up their minds.
A meeting set for 6 p.m. Monday will continue the conversation.
There are three options.
The first is to continue the current program, which is to inspect when a compliant it made. The second involves having all property owners register their rental homes with the city and the city conduct exterior inspections from the right-of-way.
The third option, which Mayor Holly Brinda said is the best approach for improving the city’s housing stock, includes exterior and interior inspections every three years and a fee ranging between $20 and $100 per unit per year depending on the number of units. Fees for non-compliance would be added to the tax duplicate and increase as time out of compliance grows.
Council President Mike Lotko, D-at large, said Hoffman’s story shows that the current program is working. When she complained, the city’s Building Department appropriately stepped in, he said.
The number of complaints the city has had is much less than the number of rental units. According to Kevin Brubaker, senior manager of the Building Department, the city has handled 503 valid complaints from tenant-occupied homes since April 2012. Fewer than 10 percent went to the level of prosecution, something Brubaker attributes to inspectors.
Jessie said he wasn’t surprised by what he saw in Hoffman’s home.
He is the only Councilman pushing for Council to approve the program that includes registration, exterior and interior inspections.
Tenants like Hoffman, who pay $600 a month to live in a home riddled with problems, are the force to him, he said.
“My first impression when I walked through the doors and saw the flowers on her dining room table was this is a woman who wants a home,” he said. “She was identified through our current system, and it seems to now be working for her. But my main concern is, how many people are out there that we don’t know about? With a compliant-driven system, you just don’t know.”
Callahan said this is the first time he can remember Council so divided on one issue.
“Right now, we don’t have a majority consensus to pass anything,” he said.
Madison said he thinks Council will eventually come up with legislation that works.
“It’s not that we don’t want to do something, but the issue is how can we roll something out that is beneficial to everyone — protect our tenants and respect our property owners?” he said.
Holly Huff, head of the Furnace Cascade Neighborhood Block Watch, said she has wanted a program beyond complaint-driven for more than six years.
She knows there are more homes in disrepair that are falling through the cracks.
“I have four other tenants, but I can’t get them to speak up and say, ‘We will report our landlord,’ ” Huff said. “This is actually the better of what I have seen in this neighborhood.”