The discussion surrounding rental properties and housing continues to be a hot topic in Athens as community members keep pushing for reform.
Damon Krane, former Athens mayoral candidate, had a very strong emphasis on housing during his campaign. His plan, Operation Slumlord Smackdown, detailed ways to accomplish its goals of strengthening enforcement of the city Housing Code and enabling renters to make informed decisions, among others, according to his website.
“I think the housing situation in Athens is a key part of just a bigger problem,” Krane said. “We've got some of the worst poverty and income inequality in Ohio, and I don't think there's any mystery as to why. I think if you look at our town from OU to Athens city government it's just one big racket. It's just a series of mechanisms designed to transfer as much money as possible from low income workers and students into the pockets of university upper administrators, city officials landlords (and) real estate moguls.”
Krane said while inadequate rental housing regulation is a way to exploit tenants, methods like unconstitutional speech restriction and union busting tie in together to exploit their respective groups.
“I think part of the local housing situation is just that we have inadequate regulation of rental housing by design,” Krane said. “The code enforcement office is woefully understaffed. It's designed to fail.”
Krane said Operation Slumlord Smackdown also calls for crackdowns on stolen security deposits, the reduction of utility bills and carbon emissions and rent control.
“Because we're in a situation where the City Housing code just has not been enforced for decades and code violations too just piled up year after ... if we actually start enforcing the housing codes, it's going to cost money to bring all these properties up to code that have been neglected for so long,” Krane said. “And the only thing that will stop landlords from passing those costs on to tenants is rent control.”
Krane also said voting plays a role in those policies and what it will take to change them. He cited the last citywide election where voter turnout was much higher in the city’s wealthiest homeowner neighborhoods as a problem.
“The people who run our city are accountable to a very small portion of our community,” Krane said. “And it's the wealthiest portion of our community. It's not the 80% of city residents who live in rental housing.”
Ellie Hamrick, former Athens City Council candidate, also endorsed Operation Slumlord Smackdown.
“I think that Athens is really a paradise for predatory slumlords and there are a number of landlords really taking advantage of people here in Athens … landlordism itself is a totally unfair and corrupt system,” Hamrick said. “For me, I don't think there's any such thing as a ‘good landlord.’ A landlord is somebody who, because they happen to belong to a class of property owners, think that they have a right (to), you know, half or two thirds of your paycheck every month so you can have the basic right to have a roof over your head.”
Hamrick said she has not seen the city do anything to fix housing issues in the community.
“I think implementing various points of Operation Slumlord Smackdown (would) be a really good start, from the city’s perspective,” she said. “What I really need is organization and activism from the bottom up. So I don't think we should be pressuring the city to do things. And I don't think we should expect that the kind of change we need will come from the city alone. I think we really need a union.”
David Riggs, director of code enforcement, said housing issues come from the large amount of rental properties in Athens due to the number of students.
“It's important for us, and other types of communities, to take a really hard look at the rentals that occur here and try to manage this the best that we can,” Riggs said. “That does a lot for the community. I think if you didn't have that (you would have) a lot more problems with the community, if we didn't manage to maintain those units. We've got almost 5,600 rental properties in the city, and probably close to 18,000 or 19,000 students.”
Riggs said the goal is to inspect those rental units at least once a year. The department got “pretty close” to that goal last year and met it in 2017.
“And that's what we want to continue to try to do,” he said. “To try to be able to condition each one of those rental units every year to make sure that you know there is at least a minimum safety standards ... for the students that are coming into our community.”
Those inspections included aspects like making sure spaces are safe and sanitary, have working smoke detectors, ventilation in the bathrooms and other basic safety features, Riggs said.
The housing code office does not have much of a relationship with landlords, Riggs said. He explained that beyond communicating code violations for their properties, some are easier to work with than others.
“We know some landlords are gonna do what we asked them to the first time and some that we have to remind frequently to make sure they get their stuff done,” Riggs said. “Again, this is all for safety. We want to make sure the people renting these units are going to be safe.”
He said one of the biggest housing issues facing Athens right now is communicating with absentee landlords. Those are landlords who own rental properties in Athens but may live in a completely different state.
“We have some that live in Colorado and other locations,” Riggs said. “And those are harder for us to deal with because they're not in the community. I personally think ... they don't really have the same feelings that somebody who lives here has to make sure (it’s) clean and safe for the resident.”