************** By Damon Krane Blog Exclusive March 8, 2019 **************
Athens, Ohio mayor Steve Patterson has good reason to want to give the impression that Athens doesn’t have a slumlord problem and that he has a good handle on rental housing code enforcement. Information included in a class-action lawsuit recently filed by former Carriage Hill Apartment tenants suggests that under Mayor Patterson’s direction inadequate code enforcement endangered the lives of dozens of city residents and contributed to approximately 41 residents losing their homes and personal belongings to fire in February 2017. What’s more, I just announced I’m running against Patterson in this year’s mayoral race, and I’m an independent democratic socialist with a plan to improve rental housing conditions that I call “Operation Slumlord Smackdown.”
But now Patterson is in a real pickle because, aside from Athens having a slumlord problem and current rental housing code enforcement being severely inadequate, Patterson appears to have knowingly misrepresented city data to suggest otherwise.
When the Athens News questioned Patterson about my campaign launch this past Wednesday, he responded by substantially under-representing the actual size of the Code Enforcement office’s rental housing inspection workload and by substantially over-representing the size of its rental housing inspector workforce. Those two misrepresentations, taken together, give the impression that Code Enforcement is much better equipped to do its job than it actually is, and that Mayor Patterson is doing much more to ensure safe rental housing in Athens than he actually is.
First, Patterson told the Athens News that 5,625 rental housing inspections were performed last year. So that must mean code officers inspected rental housing units in Athens 5,625 times last year, right?
5,625 actually is the exact number of registered rental housing units listed on the current February 1, 2019 edition of the “City of Athens Registered Rental Housing List” published on the Code Enforcement section of the City of Athens website. Code officers are responsible for inspecting each of these rental housing units once annually. But code officers also are responsible for conducting follow-up inspections to determine whether landlords have corrected previously identified violations. (You know, like the follow-up inspection of Carriage Hill Apartments that reportedly wasn’t scheduled to occur until almost an entire month after code officers discovered several faulty smoke detectors and at least one expired fire extinguisher. That is, the follow-up inspection that never occurred because part of the apartment complex burned down first.)
What’s more, on top of annually inspecting each rental housing unit and conducting follow-up inspections code officers are responsible for responding to tenant complaints by investigating alleged code violations. A reasonable person might also term these investigations “rental housing inspections.” Indeed, under the heading of “Inspections,” the Code Enforcement section of the City of Athens website states, “The compliance facet of our daily responsibilities includes investigations for rental housing permits. There are currently four officers conducting these inspections annually. The office also handles other inspections which address legislatively determined needs of the community, such as… Rental housing complaints.”
As it turns out, code officers are expected to perform quite a lot of these follow-up and complaint-initiated inspections each year in addition to all those regularly scheduled annual inspections. Just how many? Well, the city hasn’t published its data for 2018 yet, but the 2017 Office of Code Enforcement and Community Development Annual Report is available on the City of Athens website, and it provides information for other recent years.
The report states that in 2017 there were 5,587 registered rental units in the city of Athens and that, in addition to the 5,535 “rental inspections” (i.e. regularly scheduled annual inspections) performed that year, code officers conducted 3,791 “re-inspections” and 647 “complaint investigations.” So in 2017 fewer regularly scheduled annual inspections were performed than the number of total registered rental housing units (i.e. 5,535 regular annual inspections of 5,587 units). But when we add to that year’s 5,535 “rental inspections” the 3,791 “re-inspections” and 647 “complaint investigations,” we find that code officers actually inspected city rental housing units 9,973 times in 2017 – a number of inspections 44% greater than the number of rental units.
What about 2016? According to the report, there were 5,607 registered city rental units in 2016. Meanwhile, code officers conducted 3,285 regular annual “rental inspections” that year, plus 3,096 “re-inspections” and 593 “complaint investigations.” Thus code officers inspected city rental housing units 6,974 times in 2016 – a number of inspections 20% greater than the number of rental housing units.
What’s more, given that the 2017 report boasts that the Code Office was able to implement new practices that year that reportedly doubled the number of daily inspections over those conducted in 2016, it seems more likely that the 2018 inspection total would be more like the higher 2017 total figure than the relatively lower 2016 total figure. But given that the 2017 total includes 4,348 more inspections than the 5,625 inspections Patterson claimed code officers performed in 2018, while the 2016 total included 1,349 more inspections than Patterson’s alleged 2018 total count, both year’s previous inspection totals are much higher than Patterson’s 2018 figure.
So what are we to make of Mayor Patterson’s claim that, as the Athens News paraphrased him, “Code Enforcement officers performed a total of 5,625 inspections” in 2018? –that is, his claim that code officers conducted precisely the same number of rental housing inspections as there are registered rental housing units in the City of Athens – when, according to the 2017 report, during both 2017 and 2016 code officers conducted fewer regular annual inspections than there were rental housing units, but substantially more total inspections than there were rental housing units?
Whether intentional or not, Patterson appears to have given the Athens News a false figure – and one which most likely substantially under-represents the actual workload of rental housing inspections.
If so, it’s not the only false figure Patterson gave the Athens News and its readers.
Just as a smaller workload is easier to tackle than a larger workload, any workload is easier to tackle with a larger workforce than with a smaller workforce. And – again, perhaps coincidentally — just as Patterson appears to have severely under-represented the rental housing inspection workload, he also appears to have severely over-represented the rental housing inspection workforce.
Patterson told the Athens News that those 5,625 inspections were performed “with five, six if you count (Code Enforcement Director) Rick Sirois, code enforcement officers.” But why would we count anyone as a code officer responsible for rental housing inspections who is not actually employed as a code officer responsible for rental housing inspections?
Similarly, remember that the Code Enforcement website states, “The compliance facet of our daily responsibilities includes investigations for rental housing permits. There are currently four officers conducting these inspections annually.”
And finally, the 2017 report states,
“Three of the four Code Officers do rental inspections 3 of the 4 weeks a month, the other Code Officer assists with permits in the office and patrols the city for issues such as trash, signs, etc. The fourth week of the month the officers will do re-inspections from the previous month. Every Friday, each officer patrols his particular zone, looking for any of the above mentioned items. So to summarize, in a 20 day work month with 4 officers, a total of 80 man work days, the Code Officers doing inspections 48 of those days and 32 days are spent doing their other job obligations.”
So, contrary to Mayor Patterson’s claim that there are 6 code enforcement officers inspecting rental housing, it would appear there are actually 4 — and that even those 4 inspectors are not solely tasked with rental housing inspections but expected to perform a grab bag of other duties as well. Indeed, if the above statement from the 2017 report still applies, then there are only 3 code officers performing rental inspections — just half the number Patterson claimed!
As the mayor, Patterson is ultimately responsible for the operation of the Code Enforcement office. Shouldn’t he know how many people work there and what they do?
Intentionally or not, Mayor Patterson has misrepresented city data in a way that would mislead Athens News readers to conclude the city is better equipped to enforce the code in rental housing than it actually is. To me that kind of misrepresentation doesn’t look like the work of a mayor who’s striving to solve our slum housing crisis – it looks like the work of a mayor who’s either woefully uninformed about his own administration or who’s desperately trying to sweep our slum housing crisis under the rug. Maybe Patterson is nervous because it’s no longer just the health, safety, privacy, and financial security of the vast majority of Athenians who live in rental housing that’s on the line; now it’s Mayor Patterson’s job, too.
The fact of the matter is that the City of Athens has never allocated to its Code Enforcement office anywhere near the staff and resources necessary for that office to adequately enforce the city’s existing housing code. With just 4 inspectors not even solely tasked with rental housing code enforcement and 5,625 registered rental units in Athens, too few inspectors are stretched too thin to be able to actually perform the thorough inspections we need, especially after the quality of rental housing has been allowed to progressively deteriorate during so many decades of neglect. At the same time, the City has never enacted a housing code strong enough to prevent predatory slumlords from running rampant. Among other measures, we need a much stronger code and much more aggressive code enforcement. Finally, we need a mayor who will oversee a more determined and successful Code Enforcement office — one with the staff and resources necessary to fulfill its mission.
Unfortunately, Mayor Patterson is content to pass the buck. According to the Athens News, “The mayor noted that his job as mayor is not to create legislation in regards to housing or other matters; that’s the responsibility of the legislative branch, City Council.” But I have a decidedly different take on Athens City Council. I believe that if Athenians elect me on the basis of Operation Slumlord Smackdown, they’ll send a powerful message to every single city officeholder: start doing right by renters or get replaced by someone who will. So rather than being a mayor who hides behind council’s inaction, I’ll be the mayor who compels council to join me in making Athens a better place for its residents, whether council members like it or not.