Tenants Push for Stronger Landlord/Tenant Law

by Brian Davis

            “As a result of [the 1998 Tenants Town Hall Meeting last year we were able to get a lot done. The primary thing that we got done was that we were able to prevent the displacement of 1, 900 families in the City of Cleveland,” according to Ward 5 Councilman Frank Jackson. Tenants gathered again October 23, 1999 at Cuyahoga Community College Metro campus to begin the process of passing a local landlord tenant law in the City of Cleveland as part of Town Hall Meeting II.

            Michael Foley, new director of the Cleveland Tenants Organization, outlined the specifics of the law that had been developed out of the suggestions from last year’s event. Foley characterized these new ordinances as “[Protecting] you in making your complaints about trying to get a better quality of life in your apartment.”

            Joining Foley and Jackson to hear testimony from tenants of subsidized apartments throughout Cleveland included Councilmen and women Pat Britt (Ward 6), Merle Gordon (Ward 15), Joe Cimperman (Ward 13), and Michael Polensek (Ward 11). Also present were Marty Gelfand, staff for Congressman Dennis Kucinich, and representatives from Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Senator George Voinovich’s office. Cleo Busby, president of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, spoke to the crowd about the importance of organizing and voting after listening to 45 minutes of testimony.

            The Councilpersons gathered said that they realize that it will be a tough battle to pass a local landlord tenant law, but felt it had a good chance. Cimperman said that he had already been lobbied by a couple of landlords. He said that the only way to counter this opposition is to have another 400 people show up at City Hall, as was done last year. Cimperman said, “The 400 who came down to City Council [last year] had what I like to call a religious effect on the power structure.”

            Jackson said, “I think that we can get the number of votes whether it looks like it looks now is another question.” Allan Pintner, president of the local apartment association, who was reached in his office following the town hall meeting, was reluctant to comment on the proposed law, saying that it was too early to comment.

            The most controversial aspect of the law is the provision which requires 24 hour security seven days a week for apartment buildings with over 30 apartments. The other provisions highlighted included an addition of penalties for landlords which violate a tenants rights, including entering an apartment without giving 24 hour notice, adding illegal terms to a lease, illegally evicting a tenant. If passed this new law would require landlords to pay the attorney fees if a landlord loses in one of the above situations.

            One other protection that received a great deal of applause from tenants during the town hall meeting was language preventing retaliation by a landlord against a tenant. This would mean those if a tenant made a formal complaint a landlord could not evict, reduce services, or increase the rent in retaliation. Foley said that this was a problem that they heard repeatedly and was taking place at a senior property in Euclid.

            The law was introduced in City Council in early October, and currently is in administrative review. It is anticipated to go before committees in early 2000. Other provisions include a cap on late fees, larger print for automatically renewing leases, and a clear identification of the utilities a tenant is paying for in the lease.

            Repeatedly during the day, the need for a national agenda on affordable housing to include the preservation of public housing was proposed. Polensek said, “The Federal government has a responsibility to provide safe, clean, adequate housing for the people of the city of Cleveland.” Cleo Busby spoke on the importance of supporting and voicing your concern to the federal representatives who are responsible for oversight and control of HUD.

            The tenants were given the bulk of the town hall meeting to comment on the proposed landlord tenant law, ask questions, and express concern about other problems that were not included in the law. A couple of themes emerged that many tenants face and cannot find relief. A man from an eastside Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Unit expressed concern over carbon monoxide detectors, which was echoed by a number of other tenants. A number of elderly and disabled tenants expressed concern over the conditions of elevators in subsidized housing units.

            Jackson told those gathered, “It is important for you to be here to tell elected officials to continue to work on our behalf.” The spirit of the message delivered to the 200 tenants gathered on this cold day in October was join together, there is strength in numbers, and together tenants can forge a better place to live.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #39, December 1999-January 2000