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

Ray: Well, there are things that we look at: do you have development experience, what is your plan for the property, it must be submitted, and it’s all on the public record, open to public scrutiny. Any hearings in our courtroom are open, people can sit and listen to what is being presented and review the documents. So, there is a level of scrutiny on it. Has it been a way to be a profit center for the CVC’s and non-profits? No, it hasn’t. But it is a way to abate a nuisance. And in fact, the house that we’ve used in our newsletter, on South Boulevard, was condemned and due to be torn down and it has owner-occupants in it today, and the turn-around was amazing.

One of the big problems in using receivership is the lack of capital on the part of the people, isn’t it, the people who want to use receivership, including the community development corporations.

Ray: You have to put together how (you are) going to finance the repairs. The Cleveland Restoration Society has different levels, having banks step in, you can obtain a construction loan, groups have done that. There’s some working capital you can obtain through Neighborhood Progress Inc. Those type of things, but yes, it’s a problem because you have to step forward with the money to improve the property. You have a lien, but that’s all you have, a lien, unless you bring it to foreclosure.

Gloria: Since you’re talking about the money, I know that you and I have had this discussion that you have a real concern with the older people, the older residents that we have in the city that you see them come before your court, and I like sometimes that you’ve said that a building inspector is much more likely to see why, if they’re bringing little old ladies, widows, who have fixed income, you’re dilemma is why aren’t you bringing these corporations and banks to me as well?

Ray: The irony of it, and I’d like to talk about one case, somewhat in the abstract. Mayor Jackson has turned this around and he is working with people first, seeing what resources can be brought to bear from the Office on Aging. His objective is not to have any senior citizens come into court. Now, sometimes they do. We’ll make a referral to him, to the Office on Aging, Community Development Department. But, last year I had a case where a woman was brought in and she was in a motorized wheelchair, and she came in with her nurse, and she was cited for having her bushes too high. Across the street was a bank-owned property, boarded up, not repaired; and then another property where the garage door had collapsed, off of the property, sitting there, from an investment owner. I don’t think the court was set up for that purpose. We emphasize, and it was and is to this day, a complaint-driven system. So you turn in the complaint on the woman with high bushes, and she’s cited, and these other people aren’t. And I think the Building/Housing Dept is trying to move away from that. But that’s why there’s a judge to see, hopefully making decisions.

How much hope do we have in a complaint-driven system being more transparent because people in the past have gone ahead and used this politically, just out of spite, for many reasons. You don’t know who the accuser is, it’s wrong, it’s an informant society, and you won’t get people to move into an informant society and work there, if, in fact they’re going to be harassed and harassed and harassed. I’ve been caught up in court a few times because of that. I’m just wondering if we can go ahead and strip away the protections of the informant.

Ray: I think the system has to be reformed, and it is being reformed. The Mayor and City Council put in place a firm called “The Lien Firm” that is looking at objective standards for the measurement of inspectors work, for measurement of the type of work that they do, and accountability. I know that the outline will work because I use The Lien Firm for the deputy bailiffs in the Housing Court and I use The Lien Firm for the Housing Court Specialists to improve outcomes and to develop ways that we can account for what our work is. Are they at the point that they need to be? No, they certainly aren’t. But, they’re working on rebuilding the department because it seems as though the department collapsed in the last year, or year and a half.

Gloria: So, are you telling us that you have been involved in that…

Ray: No, I haven’t been involved in that. We’ve used The Lien Firm…

What is that?

Ray: It’s an industrial engineer, who lives out in North Collinwood and he develops systems for governments and businesses to assess productivity, wasted effort, using ??? methods, and in fact…our bailiffs were enthused about the methods used in restructuring their work so they were more productive.

I want to go back to the whole blighting effect on neighborhoods when we do a lot of board-ups. Can you expand on that idea?

Ray: The problem with board-ups is that it sends a signal that there’s trouble in the neighborhood. Every boarded-up property sends a signal that the value of that property is less than what the mortgage is on that property. Therefore, it shows that there’s some stress in the market. The more boarded-up properties, the more stress in that market, the softer real estate market. It sends a signal to anyone that drives through that neighborhood, to anyone that wants to invest in that neighborhood, and importantly, anyone who lives in that neighborhood that investing in that neighborhood may not be a productive thing to do. And, in fact, in Philadelphia, they did a study of neighborhoods and what is the effect of boarded-up property in Philadelphia. It takes, within 500 feet, value away from the adjoining properties, around $6500, lessens their value.

What should you do?

I need to interject here, because my significant other just told me a story of one of her friends, the parents have a board-up across the street and she went over there and painted the plywood on the door to make it less of like a board-up. Because they think that there is that sort of, like when you drive down the street and you see that, you do, you make that calculation. You know, what’s going on here, there’s zero-per cent financing signs all over the place.

Ray: Any property that is before the court, that is boarded, I order that the boards be painted, the defendant paint the boards. I understand you filed bankruptcy, you’re in foreclosure, there’s no way that you’re going to be able to get back into that house, it’s been stripped out, keep it clean, secure, graffiti-free, AND you paint the boards. Now the city ordinance on board-ups requires the boards be painted a color to harmonize with the neighborhood. But, in fact, they are not. But, if they are painted, there’s been some community groups that have stepped forward, for instance, in Slavic Village, on East 52nd and 53rd, between Hamm and Blanch where they not only painted the boards to reduce the effect, they’ve painted curtains on the houses, and fish tanks in the windows. We find that in Chicago they have a board-up program that is less obtrusive to the neighborhood, it doesn’t impact the neighborhood in quite a negative way. And we have examples of those.

Let me go back to what you said a minute ago: there’s a city ordinance that isn’t being enforced?

Ray: It outlines how properties are to be boarded and the last clause states that the boards must be painted a color to harmonize with the neighborhood. So I always tell people to paint the boards a neutral color. I don’t want them Day-Glo Pink; a neutral color to help that house blend in more to the neighborhood. Yes it is, and in Chicago, they have a great system there, there are some neighborhood groups that are doing it there…

Explain that a little bit, how is their board-up different? If you don’t slap sheets of plywood on…?

Ray: They secure the openings, but then they paint windows in the openings, so it looks like there are windows on the properties. There was a large industrial building where the windows were boarded and they had an artist paint gears in all of the windows to give it an industrial flair. These are all things that can be done to reduce that negative impact, to some degree. It’s still going to be a boarded-up property.

Talking about ordinances that aren’t enforced, tell them about the requirement to put utilities underground. The wires.

Ray: Well, what do you want to know? It’s still part of our code. The codified ordinances of the City of Cleveland. Newton Debaker was our Mayor, sponsored by Councilman Kalina, they required that all utilities within certain areas, and they had a Schedule A and a Schedule B and it’s still part of the public service code, be put underground every year and 10%, from 1914…

So, they must be done!! Did they ever start?

Ray: They did. Newton Debaker vetoed the ordinance because it didn’t have penalties strong enough. So Newton Debaker while is in there, the railroads and the utilities were quite an organized group around the turn of the century…

So that’s the public/private partnership that we talk about?
We’re talking about a lot of cosmetic things here, we’re not painting it to look like an aquarium….but still a cosmetic feel to it. The thing that struck is that you said that for 27 years in your court, you’ve never seen this many foreclosures and things like that. How are we getting to that point because I think that you have access to financial records they’ve got to divulge. Truly, I don’t have anything to be able to keep up with this. The question is this: we can paint a lot and do some of those things but we’re treating some symptoms, which we’ve gotta do some of that. But at the same time in the inner core, we’ve got the flu.

Tune in next edition when Judge Pianka discusses what sub-prime mortgages have done.

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