STEUBENVILLE - The sometimes strained relationship between the city and the Jefferson County Landlords Association heated up again this week when an attorney representing the landlords filed a lawsuit in Jefferson County Common Pleas Court challenging the constitutionality of a recently passed criminal nuisance ordinance that is set to take effect on Aug. 8.
Attorney Aaron Miller indicated Wednesday he also is considering filing a second lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of an ordinance passed Tuesday that will permit property owners to petition the city to create zoning overlay districts in order to cap the number of single-family rental houses at the current number.
It isn't the first time the landlords association has taken the city to court.
The landlord association, represented by attorneys Frank Bruzzese and Michael Calabria, challenged an ordinance passed by the City Council in 2005 citing discrimination. The city would later repeal the legislation.
In August 2007, the Rev. Toni Hubbard, who had joined the earlier lawsuit against the city, told City Council members she "felt in danger" when a shooting occurred in front of her Ridge Avenue home.
"I have lived in this community for the past 60 years and I have never been so frightened. It's not something I will ever forget. I believe we, as citizens, as voters, and property owners should work to bring this city back. I am a landlord in this community. And I believe our landlords should screen potential renters to cut down on a lot of the riff-raff coming into our neighborhood," Hubbard said.
"The landlords cannot be blamed for all these problems. It is a social problem with the same people in trouble over and over. We need to crack down on the hoodlums in this town," responded Jerome Hagerty, president of the landlords association.
The public debate surrounding rental property in Steubenville continued in February 2008 when 1st Ward Councilman Gerald DiLoreto expressed his concerns at a Hilltop Community Development Corp. meeting.
"Our city has 184 rental property owners and 86 of those landlords live out of town. We need to make the landlords more responsible for their properties in the city. I encourage you to start attending the landlord association meetings and ask questions," stated DiLoreto.
"I have told the municipal court judge (Daniel Spahn) if he can't put the owners of dilapidated properties in jail, then put them in orange suits and have them pick up trash. And I would like to see a required background check on all tenants to make sure we aren't getting anyone moving here that we don't want living in the city," DiLoreto added.
That comment prompted an immediate response at a City Council meeting from Hagerty, who said DiLoreto's comments, "made me terribly angry. I couldn't believe the statements of the councilman calling for background checks of new residents. The problem is not people moving in. The problem is people moving out of this city by the hundreds. Drive around the city and see all the 'For Rent' signs. You are driving people out of Steubenville."
"The police chief or the sheriff will provide you or any landlord with a background check of a tenant for free. I don't want people moving here and bringing in their drug problems," DiLoreto told Hagerty.
By 2012, rental housing focused on public housing issues in the city and saw U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, initiate a congressional investigation into crime and violence in the city government-owned and private-owned public housing units.
In January, City Council members appeared ready to consider a rental inspection program if the proper procedures are followed as well as:
Determining a proper fee structure for rental registration and rental inspections.
Enforcing existing code violations.
Suggesting landlords include crime free lease language.
Urban Projects Director Chris Petrossi asked planning commission members at the February meeting to review proposed legislation, "that will allow residents to petition the city to limit the number of future rental properties in their geographical area."
"There are similar ordinances already in effect in Oxford, Ohio, and East Lansing, Mich. I would like the planning commission to review the proposed ordinances and we can have an intelligent conversation at our March meeting," added Petrossi.
The planning and zoning commission's March meeting saw an internal debate over two proposed ordinances, including interior and exterior inspections if the property owner has not complied with the property maintenance code.
"I really respect the ordinance and think it is long overdue. But how do we prevent a backlash from the landlord organization. I am asking that we be fair about everything. I don't want to overwhelm the landlords or appear to punish them on everything. We have to treat our landlords like any other business. It is important how the city leaders come across on this issue. It is important we and the landlord association understand each other. I also don't think the landlords should be responsible for water they don't use," stated Commission member Teresa DiCarlantonio.
She also questioned the proposed ordinance allowing neighborhood residents to petition and then vote to limit future rental properties in their district.
"The City Council recognizes most landlords in the city are good landlords who maintain their property. This legislation is designed to address the worst of the worst. We actually had legislation adopted in 2007 that dealt with the property maintenance code. This legislation gives the landlord the right to refuse an inspection and the city would have to seek an administrative warrant. And, this will really only apply to three to four landlords who don't maintain their rental properties," declared Petrossi.
The April planning commission meeting heard Hagerty warn the future rental property cap in neighborhoods could be considered discrimination.
"Banning rental properties in a certain neighborhood could be a veiled attempt to keep minorities out of a neighborhood. That legislation could be a discriminatory tool," Hagerty warned.
Hagerty said a private meeting arranged in April by Councilman at large Kenny Davis, "was a good chance to air our concerns in a non-confrontational session."
But by this week the public debate intensified.
"Our hilltops, which are made up of more than 70 percent rental properties, are a disgrace. They are noted for crime, litter, vacant lots, houses that need repairs and criminal elements from outside of Steubenville who reside there illegally. It is no wonder renters and homeowners are advised to not to come to Steubenville to rent or buy. We should be catering to students from Franciscan University and the gas and oil industry. It appalls me when individuals, Realtors and citizens talk about Steubenville in a negative way," DiLoreto stated at the Tuesday night council meeting.
Fourth Ward Councilwoman Angela Suggs said she was aware some of the legislation was not popular.
"But if we attack the whole problem together it will help solve the problem. If we attack a little bit at a time we will achieve our goals," Suggs told her colleagues and the audience Tuesday.
According to Hagerty, "Steubenville has the reputation of denying any small businesses from trying to operate in the city. We are a small business that provides a service to the community. We wanted to sit down with the City Council to discuss the criminal nuisance law but we were never invited to discuss the issue. It is a shame we have to use money for an attorney that could have been used for repairs to our rental properties."
The criminal nuisance ordinance now under legal challenge was first suggested by 2nd Ward Councilman Mike Johnson, who said the legislation was modeled after laws in other Ohio cities, East Lansing, Mich., and was upheld by the Michigan state Supreme Court.
"This law is designed to protect the property owners including the landlords and applies to all property owners in the city. The city of Pittsburgh has similar laws. And I believe this new law will be upheld by the courts," said Johnson.