A recent ordinance proposed by the Athens City Council last Monday could increase fines and include possible jail time for absentee landlords who neglect their properties that violate city code.

The proposed legislation would change current city code, which imposes a $100 fee and a misdemeanor when a violation is not addressed.

“In some cases it was to the landlords benefits to simply be fined and pay the low fine than paying the higher cost of making the corrections,” City Councilman Jeff Risner, D-2nd Ward said. “That's all the city could do, levy a fine.”

The ordinance under consideration would change this to increase the fees as the misdemeanor offenses add up and could eventually lead to jail time. Risner said the ordinance is aimed at changing the attitudes of landlords who neglect their properties and typically live out of state.

“It's a way of changing attitudes of these bad landlords to bring the properties up to code,” Risner said.

Lance Allison, the interim director for the Office of Code Enforcement, said this ordinance could help his office more strictly enforce city code when it comes to houses that are contributing to blight and falling into disrepair.

“What (City Council members) are trying to propose is trying to make the penalties stronger to give us a little more ammunition to help get properties cleaned up,” Allison said. 

Blighted houses are unoccupied vacant properties that tend to fall into disrepair the longer they are left alone, Allison said. These properties are not only an eyesore, but they generally pose dangers to the community as a fire hazard, or for people who may wander inside the structure and get injured.

Risner said once a house falls into disrepair it can spread to its neighbors and eventually leads to urban blight.

Urban blight isn’t a large problem for the city but it does exist closer to the outskirts of town “out of sight and out of mind,” Allison said 

Allison and Risner said the landlords who live in the city won’t be affected by the new ordinance if it’s passed. Normally the issues they have with these landlords are resolved before it would even have to go to court.

“The ones that we have a problem with are a different animal. It's easier to deal with a house when people are living in it,” Allison said.

Pete Couladis, a former Uptown landlord, believes that the possibility of jail time as a penalty is “excessive.”

Couladis, who is also the Athens County Republicans chair, said increasing fines is a good way to address the issue. He also said landlords whose tenants are trashing the property shouldn’t be punished.

The debate over stricter punishments for landlords who violate city code has been increasing as the 2019 general election approaches. Athens Mayoral candidate Damon Krane and Athens City Council candidates Chris Monday and Ellie Hamrick are three of the leading voices among candidates this fall. 

Krane and Hamrick’s “Operation Slumlord Smackdown” is a key part of their campaigns for office.

“Our slum housing crisis isn’t anything new, and neither are the incumbent politicians suddenly talking about addressing it,” Krane said in an email. “They’ve known about these problems for decades. They’ve helped perpetuate these problems for years.”

Krane said Hamrick, Monday and him are a reason why the City Council has begun bringing up this issue and creating legislation. Krane claims that Athens Mayor Steve Patterson tried to sweep the issue under the rug six months ago.

Risner, said they have been trying to find a way to address these issues for months while also trying not to be in conflict in laws at the state level which he says are preempted from local municipal governments.

One example he gave was how the State of Ohio preempted the ability of cities to regulate the height of grass on the property's lawns.

Risner said he believes the ordinance will pass unanimously at their meeting on Tuesday but expects there to be contentious debate at the meeting.