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The Housing Court recently celebrated its 35th anniversary. At this milestone, we took a look back at the Court – from its inception, through its growth, to the present. In doing so, we looked, as well, at the City of Cleveland, and the social and political forces at work during those times.
Cleveland has seen its share of struggle during the past four decades. We have worked to keep our communities intact, though some streets have given way to crime and disorder. As property owners have lost their jobs and homes, or simply relocated, our strong housing stock has deteriorated. Despite improvement in some neighborhoods over the past thirty years, others have unraveled before our very eyes.
At the same time, people and organizations with new or renewed energy have given us hope. In the 1970s, for example, neighborhood organizers and the community development network rallied. Legal and community advocates pressured their elected officials for more effective enforcement of cases involving property owners and code violations. The Cleveland Housing Court was one of the products of this community activism.
We are now in the midst of another surge of renewal in Cleveland’s neighborhoods. A building momentum of innovation and determination to find solutions to the City’s current challenges is beginning to turn the City around. Organizations are creating partnerships, collaborating not only with government officials, but with businesses, church groups, veterans’ organizations, block clubs, and other community groups. They are focusing their creativity on neighborhoods and neighborhood issues, including abandoned and distressed housing.
Housing Court has come a long way since its first case in 1980. The complexities of purchasing and financing real property, combined with the number of bank-owned real estate properties in the City, has presented the Court with caseloads which are larger, more complicated and more challenging. The increase in property owners who live out of state, or even out of the country, has made securing the attendance of criminal defendants difficult. Property owners are creating business organizations, as well. This further complicates compelling property owners to comply with court orders. At the same time, the number of resources available to distressed owner-occupants has decreased sharply, requiring the Court’s staff to work even more creatively with homeowners to achieve compliance with City codes.
The Housing Court remains committed to bringing new solutions to the City’s increasingly-complicated housing problems. Fortunately, it is not acting alone. The City is demolishing abandoned structures at an unprecedented rate. Neighborhoods host new construction, from town homes to apartment buildings and business centers. Banks and other lenders are beginning to see the value in releasing liens to clear title, helping move properties into the hands of beneficial owners. Neighborhood groups are finding creative new uses for old spaces. Slowly, but surely, hope is returning to Cleveland’s neighborhoods.
It has been my privilege to be the Housing Court Judge for more than half of the Court’s “life.” During that time, the expertise of the Court’s staff has grown, as has our ability to fulfill the original goal of the Housing Court: the coordinated, consistent, fair adjudication of housing cases and resolution of housing-related issues in the City of Cleveland.
The Housing Court’s accomplishments have earned it a reputation for implementing the “best practices” among similar problem-solving courts. At the same time, it is clear that a great deal of work remains. While the Court has increased its educational programs, many property owners and tenants are still uninformed about their basic rights and responsibilities. The Court, through community control sanctions, has encouraged owners with multiple properties to develop comprehensive management plans for their units. But many more owners reject the Court’s advice and assistance, leading the Court to explore more avenues through which to bring these property owners into compliance with City codes and regulations. And, while an increasing number of homeowners are willing to donate real property to help it reach the hands of beneficial owners, the Court continues to struggle with out-of-state lien holders. These individuals can not only be difficult to locate, but also have little incentive to assist in neighborhood revitalization.
While the challenges facing the Housing Court—and the City—are great, I am confident that we can rise to the challenges. The members of the Housing Court staff bring passion, dedication, knowledge and expertise to their positions. When new tools are needed for new problems, the Court can, and should, apply its considerable talents and energy to finding sustainable solutions.
Work on the Housing Court’s second thirty years has already begun. However, as Shakespeare said, “what’s past is prologue.” So, please, take some time to read this review of the Court’s first thirty years. We need to understand where we have been, as we decide where we are going. If you have thoughts or ideas about the direction of your Housing Court, I would love to hear from you. Please email me firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for your continued support of the Cleveland Housing Court and its mission.