LIMA — Summer weather is here. The grass is growing and property owners are accruing hundreds of dollars of property debt because the City of Lima mows their lawns for them.
Welcome to Lima’s southeast end, where single-family dwellings are falling apart quicker than the county can tear them down. People who live there are now at the center of an evolving public health problem and those who own the properties are just as likely to invest money into totaled cars as they are fixing up their properties — unless they receive a $50 complaint from code enforcement officer who may be driving by.
Lima’s low-income housing situation is a marked example of a problem ignored. Starting in the ’60s and ’70s when its middle-class white residents fled the area, consistent decisions to invest in other neighborhoods has created pockets of high poverty areas that look like they could be found in third-world countries.
And not a whole lot is being done about it outside of a few public initiatives.
By the Numbers
Before a problem can be solved, however, someone has to own it. According to the property records provided by Allen County Auditor’s Office, it’s Lima’s problem.
When comparing parcel addresses and the addresses of those paying taxes on the property, it reveals that a minority, 13.8 percent, of those financially invested in a Lima properties live outside of the 8-county region. That means 86.2 percent of Lima is actually owned by taxpayers who live less than an hour from the residential property they own.
And they aren’t taking as much care of them as their own households. The average property value of rental households stands at $35,300 compared to $54,800 of owner-occupied households, and almost half of all rental households in the city are graded below a C, or in need of renovation. Move southeast and almost three-fourths of all residential property is below par.
In other words, the numbers suggest that there’s no out-of-state boogeyman not taking care of Lima’s housing. Lima’s low-income housing problem is almost entirely Lima’s problem.
Identifying the Problem
Considering that the landlord registry was a major campaign issue and had spawned heated discussions across the city, the concept of the landlord registry has mostly disappeared since the city’s neighborhood concerns committee shelved the proposal late last year.
But for those heavily involved in the public side of housing regulation, it’s often one of the first topics they bring up.
“(Housing) is a huge problem. That’s why I think it started with the landlord registry. They wanted it established so they could inspect the homes and see if they’re fit for human habitation,” Lima-Allen County Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Thomas Mazur said.
“I’m a proponent of some sort of annual inspection, and it’s because of the experiences we’ve had as being the fair housing provider,” West Ohio Community Action Partnership (WOCAP) CEO Jackie Fox said.
For Councilor Carla Thompson, it’s the first step to addressing the housing problem. She’s still working to create a plan that would best fit Lima, she said.
“My goal is to sit down with landlords and other stake holders like WOCAP, and the housing consortium, to figure out, ‘How can this fit into a larger plan to bring up home values and quality of housing and safety of housing?’ It’s not a complete solution, but I think it’s a very important part,” she said.
Landlord registries aren’t unheard-of initiatives, especially among college towns with high rental rates, but Lima’s original proposal had property owners identifying the landlord registry as an onerous regulation, which some argued would raise the rent for tenants.
But a registry, or a similar plan, could eliminate one thing that seems to be one of the primary obstacles when dealing with Lima’s low-income housing problem – identification. There’s no legal requirement for a landlord to open up their residents for inspection and, hence, no way for the city to enforce the code requirements it already has on the books.
Even tenants are hesitant to bring in public entities when they’ve identified problems because of concerns of losing their living arrangements, Fox said. WOCAP runs the city’s and county’s Fair Housing Program, which has teeth when it can be proven that a landlord refuses or evicts a tenant based on a protected class, such as race. But for the 98 percent of instances where Fox hear complaints that don’t apply to the law, she’s mediating between two entities holding a month-to-month agreement.
“The tenants are not frivolous with their complaints because they know they can be evicted at any moment,” Fox said.
Department of Community Development Director Susan Crotty said internal inspections are also rare for her own department – usually one or two a month. Most of the code enforcement issues they can deal with can be seen from the street.
As for the landlords themselves, they have good reason to resist investing in their properties. Many low-income housing properties were snatched up for cheap after the housing bubble burst in 2009, but even if the sticker price was low at the time, many new property owners didn’t realize the extent of the problem they were buying into.
“People thought they were going to make money on housing stock. Some people did, and some people lost their shirts,” Mazur said. “When you look at those older houses, it’s really tough. Rather than sell the house for what it’s worth, they rent it out.”
Jeff Dulmage, realtor with Hartsock Realty and property owner, avoids properties that would fall under the category of low-income housing. Instead, Dulmage is seeing high demand for quality apartments and housing with rents at the $600 and above range as the city is riding the wave of economic activity and while unemployment rates are low.
And so those holding low-income rental housing are sitting on their properties, unable to sell a decades-old building for the right price or find the money to renovate because the rest of the neighborhood is in the same situation.
Fox, who works with tenants who live in these buildings, said many individuals living in the most run-down housing can’t qualify for better housing even if they could afford it. Low credit and background checks keep many from finding higher-end rentals when demand is already high.
“We’re not saying everyone deserves a posh apartment, but we are saying that there are some basic standards that need to be followed,” Fox said.
The problems affecting these homes range from minor to major – bed bugs, black mold, outdated wiring, broken plumbing and drainage, flooded basements and poor window and doors. Recently, WOCAP dealt with a complaint of a landlord taking off the door of a property to ensure tenants moved out.
“When I think I’ve heard it all, then I’ve heard a new one,” Fox said.
That kind of treatment has the Allen County Board of Health putting together an housing initiative as they begin the first stages to qualify the low-income housing situation as a public health problem.
Heatlh Commissioner Kathy Luhn said she’s hesitant about releasing any details quite yet because they’re still in the “planning to plan” stage. She set mid-August as the date for a larger community rollout of the initiative.
Thompson, councilor for the 3rd Ward where many of these issues are more common, plans on making the landlord registry her primary objective come July.
“The registry is going to happen. I’m going to make sure of that,” Thompson said. “Essentially, we have a huge business here going unregulated.
“I’m looking at different models because I want to get everybody’s buy-in, to provide incentives for good landlords and incentives for good tenants.”
“I don’t know if there’s any one answer,” Mazur said. “These problems don’t go away overnight. To get some sort of status change, it needs to get pushed along.”
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.