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Aging Homeowners Face Mounting Fines Due to Code Complainants

Miriam Bowers Abbott Miriam Bowers Abbott Aging Homeowners Face Mounting Fines Due to Code Complainants
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Code Enforcement is the division of Columbus government that supports the quality of life in the city by enforcing laws in areas such as housing, zoning, and sanitation. Columbus has rules that govern these matters, and Code Enforcement helps residents walk the line.

The city’s website offers details on common problems the enforcement team encounters. The problems include big things, such as bare exterior wood and unsanitary conditions (like bugs). The common problems also include things as small as parking on dirt or grass, poison ivy, and indoor furniture that’s used outside. That’s a no-no, even if the sofa patio set-up looks cute on Pinterest.

All this is to say, you might be committing a violation right this very minute.

Your little violation is probably not going to be a problem…as long as no one reports you. Violations of the law are often reported using the city’s 311 hotline or website. Residents (or non-residents) use the hotline to report violations to the city, and if the complainant wants to be anonymous, then his or her identity must be kept in confidence. That’s the law.

And, while that anonymity is required to protect a complainant from potential retaliation, the same reporting process can also be used to anonymously terrorize a neighbor. When any complaint is made, the city is compelled to investigate. And if the investigation indicates that the complaint was accurate, it’s the city’s job to issue a violation. Yes, even for the aforementioned cute patio set-up that also got 1,000 likes on Instagram.

So, when a whole bunch of houses in a Franklinton neighborhood got hit with complaints, it felt like something was up. The complaints came at the same time homeowners were inundated with offers to buy up residential homes for cash at any price. Franklinton is poised for revitalization, and the value of homes there is expected to increase dramatically in the next few years.

The complaints, said one homeowner who asked to be unnamed, provided extra incentive to consider selling a home to the speculators.

“Just getting a portion of my repairs completed would cost most people $800-$1,500. I can’t think of anyone who could spare that much, let alone an elderly widow on a fixed income. Sure, there are resources online if you’re good at digging. But plenty of elderly people wouldn’t be able to navigate a computer or find the correct info.”

Sell the house, avoid the trouble. The homeowner laid it out: “Calling code enforcement is a bullying tactic used in gentrifying neighborhoods.”

And while you can’t ever know for sure who called in the complaints, the predatory practice is one that’s been around for a while. Katie Beaumont is executive director of At Home By High, an organization that helps seniors age in place. She says the aging population is at particular risk of falling victim.

“Targeting older adult homeowners by calling code enforcement or bullying people to sell their property who have lived in their neighborhoods for decades or all their lives is not only an insult to the community-at-large, but it also puts older adults at risk for homelessness and/or financial insecurity,” Beaumont said. “Thankfully many organizations, civic groups, and city council are dedicated to protecting our older residents. These predatory practices will not be tolerated in our city.”

The City of Columbus itself is steadfast in its desire to work with residents to resolve code violations. It has a robust system for appeals, support, and deadline extensions. Cynthia Rickman, Assistant Director in the Department of Development says unequivocally, “We are not in the business of taking homes.”

And in terms of abusing the city’s 311 system as a means to harass neighbors, the city’s director of Code Enforcement, Dana Rose says there’s a more common reason for serial reporting in a neighborhood: “They just want things cleaned up.” Those sorts of complaints are typically resolved quickly. It’s one-and-done, instead of endless weekly, or monthly series of complaints.

If you are worried that code complaints are being used as a form of harassment in your neighborhood, Council Member Michael Stinziano says it’s important to speak up about it.

“I would encourage residents to contact the Code Enforcement office and Council members so we can address the issue,” Stinziano said. “Yes, we have had other neighborhoods raise similar concerns and addressed the concern accordingly.“

For more information, visit the code enforcement page or contact city council.

RELATED: At Home By High builds a support network for aging Short North residents

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