Frustrated with property owners who ignore code enforcement citations and allow their houses to deteriorate into neighborhood eyesores, Newark is aiming to find new ways to crack down on nuisance properties.
“There are an awful lot of good landlords and property owners in our city, and yet we have areas of our city that are under attack, and I don’t use that lightly,” said Councilman Chris Hamilton, who first raised the issue. “It seems that some areas of the city get taken over by folks that don’t care for their properties. If you’re a good property owner in those areas, you look around you say, ‘What can be done?’”
Council is in the early stages of writing a nuisance property law, which would give city officials new tools to go after the worst offenders.
An initial draft of the ordinance is based on a similar law in Elsmere and defines a public nuisance as failing to abate a property maintenance violation that endangers the safety, health or welfare of the public. It would make it a misdemeanor to own or rent a property that is deemed a public nuisance and impose fines and possible jail time for repeat violations.
The law would also allow the city to suspend rental permits or petition a court for receivership of the property if the issue is not resolved. In the most extreme cases, when a property is deemed unsafe, the city could condemn the property.
“You need some more teeth for the repeat offenders,” Councilman James Horning Jr. told code enforcement officials during Monday night’s council meeting. “I’m definitely in favor of giving you some more tools for people who don’t get the message for whatever reason or don’t care.”
Ryan Staub, a code enforcement officer for the city, said the four top complaints about properties are litter from parties or hoarding issues, high grass, unregistered vehicles and indoor furniture being kept outside.
“We have seen an increase in furniture being placed outside, even to the point to where the plywood tables that are used for beer pong are just being kept in front lawns. I know that’s pretty unsightly to the residents of Newark,” Staub said.
He noted that most property owners address the issue quickly and pay their citations, but argued he needs a way to handle the small percentage who don’t.
“There are properties out there that, unfortunately, we keep citing $100 citation after $100 citation, and I don’t know if they’re making more money at the parties and they just don’t care about it, or they’re very wealthy, but sometimes it just doesn’t seem to affect them,” Staub said.
Hamilton said there are a few fraternity houses and rental properties in his district that are “constant nuisances.”
“We need to do something,” he said. “A lot of people take pride in their neighborhoods and houses, and for a lot of homeowners, it negatively impacts their housing values when other houses in the neighborhood are let go.”
Councilman Travis McDermott said there are two properties in his district that are the subject of frequent complaints. Both are rental properties, but aren’t rented to university students.
“One of these properties, the homeowner that rents the home doesn’t live in the country, and so they were unresponsive,” McDermott said. “The house became vacant, the grass grew over, the trash accumulated, etc., but the city really didn’t have any recourse to deal with it other than to go out and mow the lawn and clean it up.”
Mayor Jerry Clifton noted the nuisance property ordinance is not targeted at student rentals, or rental properties in general. There are owner-occupied properties that cause problems, as well.
“It far transcends individual rental properties,” Clifton said.
He and Horning both noted they also want the ordinance to address commercial properties where neighbors complain about issues like overflowing dumpsters as well as more serious issues like motels that have persistent issues with crime, human trafficking and prostitution.
Officials plan to meet with stakeholders, including landlords, before bringing a final version of the ordinance back to council for a vote.
One landlord has already expressed concern about the law, arguing that he shouldn’t be held responsible for the actions of his tenants. Even if he wanted to evict a tenant, it would take several months to do so, he added.
“I’m just the landlord. I have not been deputized. I’m not a constable. I’m not a judge for the Court of Common Pleas. I have no authority to levy fines or evict tenants. That authority is granted only to law enforcement and the Court of Common Pleas,” Jonathan Daigle, who owns a rental property on Madison Drive, said in comments that were read into the record during Monday night’s meeting. “I cannot sit on the doorstep with a shotgun barring my tenant entry.”
Hamilton noted that the ordinance is not seeking to punish property owners for minor offenses but rather intended to give the city a way to address the worst offenders.
“We’re not talking about any one-offs,” he said. “These are problem properties that we’re targeting here, and we’re not getting any cooperation.”