Columbus City Council tonight is expected to approve legislation toughening the legal penalties for landlords who rent properties that violate city codes.
The legislation raises the penalty for a housing code violation to a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a 1 thousand dollar fine. Currently, violations are third-degree misdemeanors, punishable by a two month jail sentence and a 500 dollar fine. The legislation also increases the fine for a partnership, limited liability company or other organization from 3 thousand to 5 thousand dollars. Columbus City Attorney Rick Pfeiffer says it's a message that the city is increasing the pressure on problem property owners to comply with municipal code.
Pffeiffer: Quite frankly, an M3, if used fully all the time, is a pretty stiff penalty. 60 days in jail and a $500 fine on an individual. Bumping it to an M1 does send a clear message, however. That we now have a stronger penalty if the 60 days is not enough. We now have a judge who has incarcerated someone for 60 days for a violation, this was a repeat offender. But this will help us in saying to the community: we're going to continue to give you a chance to fix your properties. But if you don't, there's a possibility of 180 days in jail.
But while Pfeiffer says the changes will help, he admits it is much tougher for the city to go after problem properties owned by LLCs. The morass of legal paperwork involved makes it easier for an individual to hide his or her name from authorities and avoid penalties for failing to properly maintain a rental property.
Pfeiffer: I'll says this: that kind of penalty only works effectively if we're talking about a human being we can incarcerate. If we cannot get that LLC or that artificial entity to acknowledge and come to court with the lawyer, we're helpless on the criminal side. That's why in most cases when we're going after an artificial entity, we'll use the civil injunctive action, the complaint for injunctive relief, and try to get compliance that way.
Limited liability companies have long frustrated the city and neighborhood activists trying to improve the situation. The tougher penalties are part of a plan to repair systematic failures in the city's code enforcement system and the lax penalties housing code violators currently face. The city is adding eight code enforcement officers and one supervisor this year, and code enforcement officers will be more proactive in trying to find problem landlords instead of simply relying on citizen complaints.
Groups that represent local real-estate agents, apartment owners and landlords told council last month they support the changes in penalties. Sponsoring Council member Zach Klein has said his office has not received any opposition to the measure.
Ed Note: Council approved the legislation at its February 3rd meeting.