Cleveland Housing Court Judge Ray Pianka: A Meet the Bloggers Interview – Pt. I

Judge Raymond Pianka presides over Cleveland’s Housing Court. I thought this interview would be helpful considering Lorain’s housing situation.

Before Raymond Pianka was a Housing Court Judge, he was Executive Director of Detroit Shoreway, and then he was Councilman for this (Cleveland) area. Ben, of Meet the Bloggers shares a story:

I was living near the Gordon Square Arcade, they had a single room occupancy, and I needed a place to stay short-term, during the winter.

Ray: It was a 70-room hotel and they had 4 bathrooms.

Ben: They were massive bathrooms but you had to share the bathrooms. And the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization was working on redeveloping the Gordon Arcade, but they had basically, run out of money. There had been a fire and some other disasters which kept them from doing what they had planned to redevelop this huge complex with a movie theater with stores and an interior arcade, and a huge marketspace with offices on the 2nd floor; single room occupancy on the 3rd floor. They couldn’t come up with the funds they needed and the gas bill wasn’t getting paid. And with the middle of winter, if the gas bill wasn’t paid, the doors would close, the project would fail, and Ray came to me and he said, “Well, you’re now the President of the Gordon Square Tenants Association.”

And I was, ‘What?!’ And he said, “Well, as a tenant, you have a legal right to organize an association, and you also have the legal right to pay the gas bill so that the gas doesn’t shut off.” I said, ‘Oh, how are we going to do that?’ “Well,” he said, “I just happen to have a check.” Because the gas bill was in arrears for something like $70,000 and to keep the gas on, we needed several thousand. So, I went down to East Ohio Gas and they gave me a funny look but they knew about the Gordon Arcade so they took the money. And the project continued and now it is a renovated building that really adds a lot to the community. That was about 1982.

About 2 years before, there had been an arson in the Gordon Arcade, and Ray can tell you about that. The Detroit Shoreway Organization had gotten one of the first UDAGs (Urban Development Action Grant), one of the first to a community group, to renovate the Gordon Arcade. A resident of the Gordon Arcade was committing arson throughout the neighborhood, and he finally committed arson in the Gordon Arcade. Because they were not sufficiently insured, that set them back because getting the Arcade up and running had pretty much exhausted what capital they had.

Ray: …The purchase of the Gordon Square Arcade was the first act of, and one of the first commercial neighborhoods in the city, and probably in the country, for a non-profit community organization that really didn’t have any money. It was quite a feat, and it was an effort that lead to other things, and people carried on other missions… People stepped forward with vision, and things were unfolding so wonderfully here in the neighborhood I grew up in. I’ve lived here all my life, in fact, on this block, and it’s wonderful to see that.

In 1982, in the Atlantic Monthly, there was an article written about broken windows. Two sociologists, Wilson and Kelling did a study and they found that, basically, in it’s most simple form, that if a window in a building is broken and left unrepaired, then soon ALL the windows are gonna be broken. It’s not because some people love windows and other people hate windows, but that one broken window sends a message to everyone that breaking more windows, the consequences are: that there are no consequences in breaking more windows. So then it goes on to other elements of graffiti, and garbage and debris, vacant and abandoned houses, deteriorated commercial strips… And so, if that one property is allowed to deteriorate, then it’ll spread. In New York City they use that theory for police action and some feel that that’s not really the case of how things work, how crime occurs.

Rudy Giuliani applied the ‘broken window theory’ first on the subways of New York, removing the graffiti, and then working on the violence in the subways and all the problems there. Who would believe that the transit system was cleaned up and people could take the transit? And then it spread to other things. Giuliani was the one that used it through his police commissioner, and it was effective, and it goes not only to police but goes to the type of work that I do: code enforcement and enforcing the rules for landlords, for tenants, for people who live in neighborhoods. And if you neglect things, if you turn a blind eye to them, then they’re just gonna get out of hand.

Gloria Ferris: I didn’t know that you implemented this, but I found it very interesting that eviction court, the staff goes through to see if the landlord has any criminal actions against them in Housing Court for their rental properties and you use that as a way to say, ‘No, this has to be put on hold.’

Ray: Well, we’ve taken two actions. One, our bailiffs would, have taken the unfortunate job of supervising people being set out as the result of an eviction. Well, there were some properties that were in some deplorable shape, not habitable. Someone would be set out on the curb and there would be new people on the porch, with cash trying to move into the house. And the bailiff said, ‘This just isn’t right.’ So we initiated a bailiff communication, which if the bailiff is out and thinks that the property is below standard, they will send a communication to me; I will ask the city to go out and do an inspection, and if that property is below code, then we have a ‘no re-rent’ order. The property cannot be re-rented, but we are starting to see, in the last few years a record number, and I have more banks and mortgage companies that have evictions going on in my court than at any other time in the history of our court, and our court is 27 years old.

We have more evictions being brought by banks and mortgage companies, and that would also include HUD and Fannie Mae, than at any other time in the history of our court. So, we’re moving people out on a regular basis. We started to compare our civil docket with our criminal docket and what we discovered is that, ‘Gee, there are people using the civil side of the court to evict people, but on the criminal side they were ignoring our summonses and complaints. So, it caused some cognitive dissonance on my part. So, we decided that you can’t just come into court and use one side of the court, the civil side, but ignore the criminal side of the court. You don’t have clean hands. We call it our ‘Clean Hands Doctrine.’ In order to have your evictions move forward you have to clean up your criminal warrants. Regularly, we’ve had to establish a docket for those defendants who have ignored the court and we’ve held up their evictions. We’ve stopped the evictions, and they have to come in. Now, they can plead ‘not guilty’, they can have a trial, of course, but, they have to come in and take responsibility for their properties that they may or may not own. That’s something that we’ve initiated with the Court. Now, Judge Nowak, in Buffalo, is doing something similar to that.

The question was asked about marrying that up with the tax rolls.

Ray: Well, what we’ve done in addition to that, when we have the pre-trials, we have taken the list of nuisance abatement actions of the city. For instance, last year (2006) the City of Cleveland spent $2.7 million to clean up properties, cutting grass, and many of those properties are owned by corporations, and many of those corporations are banks and mortgage companies that have properties. We have taken that list, in fact,…

It sounds like corporate welfare.

Ray: Well, in a sense, the citizens were paying for this maintenance service. So, we include that if there is a plea bargain in the case, you have to pay the City back. You have to pay the taxpayers back because they had to go out and cut your grass or because they had to board up your house, or because they had to demolish your house. So, that’s another step in our program just to hold people accountable.

It was through (Jim Rokakis)’s efforts and Representative Lehman and Senator Charlie Butts that the (Housing) Court was developed and established.

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