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

The last installment of the MTB interview. 

Ray: I think we have more than the flu. I like to view the court as the emergency room. The housing conditions and a number of the patients are DOA as they arrive in court. The property cannot be saved, they cannot go back to that property, and why did this happen? The sub-prime industry came in to lend money in the City of Cleveland at a rate that wasn’t greater. There’s an article today in the Wall Street Journal about Detroit and how Detroit has a problem; Buffalo, urban centers, there’s even rural places where, cheap money, where people are able to obtain sub-prime mortgages, not only a first mortgage; I had a defendant in court today, that had a first mortgage but they also had a piggy-back mortgage which gave them their down payment to get into the property. But, if you talk to Jim Rokakis, of the sub-prime mortgages, only 10% of those are for people that purchase houses. The majority of those mortgages are people who are refinancing their properties and so they are pulling equity out of their properties. And once they’ve pulled the equity out of their properties, something may happen in their life, or adjustable rate mortgage will kick in and their mortgage payment will go up by $500. They can’t afford it.

Ray, you’re saying that 10%, according to the WSJ, only 10% of the loans are for people to get INTO houses. Because the main defense you hear on the sub-prime market is that it makes home-ownership available to people that would otherwise NOT have home ownership. So you’re saying the main thing that sub-prime mortgage has done is to strip equity from people?

Ray: It strips equity out of neighborhoods.

We’ve got neighbors that have been there 30, 40 years. I talked to my 75-year old neighbor the other day. And he’s been approached on a refinance basis; they had no debt before, they took money out and then they’re slammed. You’ve got predatory loan servicing going on here, too. Once they go ahead and make the deal, people send the money in, they say we didn’t get your money, it’s your responsibility to make sure that it gets here. And guess what? Now you have the default rate.

Ray: You have to pay more interest now, because we didn’t get your check.
It ratchets and ratchets and ratchets and all of a sudden, they own the house that was supposed to be inherited by his three kids. And it’s getting in the way of the transfer of wealth that supposed to happen between generations.

Gloria: The ARMs, in our neighborhoods, with the refinancing? There are people that are literally walking out of their houses and saying, you can have it back. I can’t pay it, and that is happening.

Ray: When I see defendants in our court, that are still in their house, I may fine them, but will not execute on the fine, and I caution them, do not leave that house until the Sheriff tells you to get out. Do not walk away from that house, you stay in that house, and that’s a mitigating factor. Because if you leave that house, and it is stripped out, you’re gonna be responsible. And what’s more, I had a woman last week, elderly woman lived in the house for 37 years, refinance a house off of Myers, she couldn’t then afford the payment, filed bankruptcy, she walked away from the house because her attorney told her to walk away. Well, guess what? She’s hauled into Housing Court. She has a house that all the plumbing’s been stripped out of, falling apart and, what’s worse, and I’m seeing this increasingly, the mortgage company is dropping the foreclosure action. They don’t want the house. There’s no equity in the house. But, what do you do with that house, because you still have that lien on it. Even after bankruptcy, you still have that lien, a toxic lien on it. The lien is far in excess of the value of the house. So what do you do…?

So, no one can go in and redevelop that house? That house is now doomed. Because the amount of money owed on it is greater than (the value) of the house.

Ray: Unless you can work with the bank, or mortgage company to negotiate a short sale. Sometimes you can, many times you can’t contact the mortgage company. Sometimes you’ll send them a deed in lieu of foreclosure, they won’t file the deed, keeping you on the hook.

I had a gentleman in court yesterday who was cited for having all his garbage out on his tree lawn, and he had moved out of his house 6 months ago. The mortgage company, they bought it back at Sheriff’s sale, never filed the deed. So, they were flying below the radar. So, they weren’t cited. But what do you do about this? Well, there has to be some accountability for this direct and collateral damage that has descended upon our neighborhoods. Not only here in Cleveland, Ohio, in the inner ring suburbs, in other places throughout the state, but in other urban areas.

Ray, “accountability for direct and collateral damage”, what does that mean?

Ray: I think what it means is all of the profits that have been made we need to document how much has been made by the investment banks, here selling those mortgages on the secondary market, (and writing derivatives on the employees three times?)…even after they’re in foreclosure they’re still selling those mortgages. So, some of those companies make money when you pay your mortgage and some of them make money when you don’t pay your mortgage. But it was a wildly profitable venture. So, what do you do? Well, in order to do a sub-prime mortgage, maybe you should pay into some sort of fund. A municipal court judge doesn’t have the ability to order that fund be set up but maybe a state legislature would order something along those lines to require that there be a fund. In fact, the governor is looking at setting up just such a fund, to help people who have been victims of this. And sometimes they’re willing victims. In the early days of the neighborhoods movement, we couldn’t get a bank loan. It was tough to get a bank loan. Cardinal’s Federal. In fact, you had to prove that you didn’t need the money in order to get the money. So we fought and we filed CRA actions and threatened CRA actions and then, what happens? Some of the banks that do business in our city, they filtered out and didn’t do as many loans and in ’95 you see the swoop of sub-primes coming in and there are areas that are particularly hard hit, harder hit than certain areas in the city, and those are the minority communities, where daily you get phone calls for sub-prime mortgages, refinance a house, and so what do you do? You hold the banks and mortgage companies who are taking these properties accountable for the properties.

Let me push you on this subject: How do we find out who these banks are? And then, how do you do what you said we should do? Which is get the information about how much money they’re making on this stuff?

Ray: Well, some of the information is private between the borrower and the bank.

And that’s why I’m asking.

Ray: So, for defendants before the court, we can get the information if they still have the papers, if they can find’em. Many of them don’t even know what company their mortgage is with, who is foreclosing on them. But if we can get that information and track, who has a mortgage and, in fact, in the (Wall Street)Journal article today the mortgage broker made $5000 on a loan. If you’re making $5000 on a loan, where did that money go? One of the studies that we need to do is follow the money. Where did the money go? Where did all those fees go? Where did the profit from this over-appraised house go? Once we’ve been able to do that, then determine if there’s any way we can get it back.

Oh, I love that sound. I guess the question that I’ve always had with those things is, as a property owner, if you’re in your home, you’re responsible for your home or we go and see you. But ultimately, when it’s not working out for that individual, for whatever reasons, I think, most of the time, they’ve been slammed, they’ve been told it’s one thing, they don’t understand all the writing, they sign it, it looks great. Then all of a sudden, we’ve got this person in court, and then here’s the people that have the title, that’s really the true owner…

Ray: Well, they don’t have the legal title, unless they take it through Sheriff’s sale, and buy it back. Then they have title. And one of the things that I require, and not all of the inspectors who cite, the way the system works, I don’t go out and get the cases, the inspectors have to cite people and get them into court. Some inspectors have felt, if it’s a bank or mortgage company, we’ll give’em time. Some of the banks and mortgage companies say, ‘Well, could ya just hold off on these code violations until we can sell the property to someone?’ Well, no, that’s not the way it works. Every title property owner has certain responsibilities, and the longer they own it, the longer their responsibilities. So I look for every defendant, whether it’s a owner-occupied structure or a corporate-owned structure, investment structure: How long have you owned it? How many days out of compliance? And did you have the resources to put in it, but you chose to use those resources somewhere else?

That’s one thing that I can do, is hold everybody accountable in the same way. That’s what I’m attempting to do. Now, the good news is some of the banks and mortgage companies are working with some of the groups. The Eastside Organizing Project, they’re working on restructuring loans. The formerly Lutheran Housing, Community Housing Solutions working with people to restructure their loans. Because they can’t take back all these properties. We have such a soft real estate market, they’re just gonna sit. And then what happens? They’re going to have to see me, if the property is not up to code.

Do you know the percentage of people, that you see, that have spent their money on everything else, rather than their home, versus those who they really did try, and it’s obvious that they tried…

Ray: I don’t know the percentage, I know there are instances rain water is flowing into the house, and they have a big screen TV, so obviously the big screen TV took priority over repairing the roof.

Except that your housing specialists have your first-time prevention program, selective intervention, you’ve put a lot of programs into place to make the distinction between somebody who’s trying and somebody who can’t versus somebody who is just not complying and buying things elsewhere.

Ray: We do screening of people, we do screen them, we go out to their property, take a look, who is helping you with this property, anyone can step forward to help you? And we try to gleen resources: Fresh Coat Cleveland, Rebuilding Together, Habitat for Humanity, in fact, for our defendants, we set up a voucher system where they get a voucher for Habitat for Humanity, they can go over to the store on Saturdays and get a step kit, or get materials and that’s worked out fairly well.

Ray has a very proactive court, I believe he tries to maintain housing.
When you’re looking for compassion, where does the compassion come in?
What I was trying to figure out is how many of them are really trying and how many of them is it just like every single day, these people do no care. Or no, we’ve got a healthy number of them that DO care, it’s just that they didn’t know what they were getting into, or life threw’em some curves and they just weren’t prepared for it.

Ray: The Housing Court sees cases on an address-by-address basis, and a defendant-by-defendant basis, so each day a person stands before me and I have to make evaluation. I have to do a screening. But that’s a new case unless they’re repeat offenders, then we have a little different road that we go down.

A hat tip to Meet the Bloggers for a great interview with Judge Pianka, and a thanks to George Nemeth for granting me permission to use this interview.

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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.

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

Comment made about someone seeing an article about Judge Pianka and when a house is in foreclosure, that a sign be put in the front yard with the lawyer’s name and phone number. And it’s a great idea if someone’s looking at it and they want to talk to someone about it.

Ray: We brought Judge Nowak in from Buffalo to screen a film on flipping in Buffalo, which has had a devastating impact on Buffalo. (The film) is out, we purchased 10 copies and it’s available, from time to time we lend it out for people to see it. It’s called “Flipping.” There’s a woman named Michele Johnson who runs a blog called “Word from a Broad” in Buffalo and she’s a civic activist from up there, and she’s a co-producer of the film. We noticed on some of the houses they had stenciled “No Trespassing on This Property” and that type of thing. I thought, gee, that would be something that we should do here in Cleveland. So the question was posed, “Why don’t you?”

I’m not the City of Cleveland and all the vacant, boarded up properties don’t come before the Housing Court, only if they’re brought in by the City. But we do have properties where we have a defendant who may have walked away from the property, filed bankruptcy, abandoned the property, and we bring’em into court. So, they’re before the court, so what if we ordered all of those properties to have the name of the owner, the titled owner, the mortgage company that is foreclosing on the property, their phone number, and the Housing Court Specialist who’s assigned from my Court to monitor that case? And what if we took it a step further and had our deputy bailiffs, when they’re out serving summonses or supervising evictions, check those properties every week? Make sure the grass is cut, they’re secure, they’re graffiti-free. So, we initiated the ‘Placard Program’, and I didn’t need any legislation because I was the judge and I could just order it because those cases were before the court. It’s ongoing, and I’ve talked to a few council representatives about maybe taking it a step further. Take any house that has the dots on it, that the City has boarded,…

Explain the dots.

Ray: The dots define the company that has the contract to board the house.

So, if the windows have plywood and a blue dot is spray-painted, that blue dot indicates the company (that boarded that house)?

Ray: Each company has a different colored dot. That way, when the City drives by, and if a board is removed, they know who to call to have the board placed back on. Some neighborhoods do have the “dot disease” because they have so many boarded up properties, and we can get into the blighting effect of the way we board up properties. But, with those properties. I’ve talked to a few council-people about taking it a step further: any property that the City boards, perhaps, should have a placard: Who is the titled owner, who has the mortgage on that property, and who do you call if something goes wrong? One of the reasons that the properties are before the Court, we did it is we’ve talked to the police about properties that have been stripped out, from plumbing, and they may find someone on the property, but they cannot find the owner. Therefore, no victim, no crime. So, they can cite’em for a minor misdemeanor instead of the more serious offense. Some of the vandalism on that property has taken thousands, maybe $20,000 to $30,000 out of the value of the property. For instance, you can take the copper pipes out; I had a defendant yesterday, it cost him $3800 to put in the copper pipes. In taking the copper pipes out, they tear out all the walls, the floors, and the damage could go up to twenty-and-more thousand dollars.

We have had people interested in a property, and we’ve tried to put them on to the owner, and there’s (???) involved here. They go ahead and the title flips and flips and flips, and each time, you know the property’s worth $40-$50,000; and here it is sold at $70,000 and $100,000, then $150,000. There’s financing under each level, and finally you have a vacant house in the middle of the neighborhood that’s never rented and then it goes into foreclosure. So, it’s a serious problem that this placard program might address.

Ray: Just in a small way, but the dynamics of flipping a property or properties, in Buffalo, the properties were sold on eBay. And they were properties that were HUD properties that people would purchase, and they would own them for 12 minutes, and they would flip’em and sell them on eBay and they’ve never even SEEN the properties.

How do they satisfy the recordation requirement, how do they actually have title before they flip it?

Ray: They would just issue a deed and send it in to be recorded there. It’s shocking. There is some of that in Cleveland and, in fact, we have our newsletter where we’ve outlined the flipping dynamics that we’ve seen here and some steps that could be taken. But the other step, the code and the state statute, is a wonderful statute under receivership where a neighbor within 500 feet, a non-profit group, or the city can step forward and ask the court to find that property a nuisance, AND if the court finds the property a nuisance: it’s vacant, it’s deteriorated, there are a number of problems with it, it’s not owner-occupied, then the court can grant the receivership, give the receiver the ability to go and repair that property AND, this is the great part about that statute: the money that receiver puts in is the first lien. It’s a super-lien. A superior lien above all other liens, including the mortgage lien. It’s a state statute. Now, a neighbor within 500 feet, and we’ve had one case like that, although the City of Cleveland has never filed an action under receivership, but the non-profit groups have filed them. In fact, we have more receiverships pending in our court today than ever in the history of our court.

How many activist groups are out there actually trying to fix up their neighborhood?

Ray: We’ve included in our newsletter the disposed receiverships and the addresses and that are pending. We’ve had Famico’s, Cleveland Restoration Society, Detroit Shoreway, Fairfax Renaissance, Buckeye, Northeast Shores. Ohio City came in with one receivership. And so those are the groups that have stepped forward. Then NPI has set up entity, which they’re filing receiverships there, too, in conjunction with their mission with the neighborhood groups, being the intermediary. So, at this point, we probably have about 30.

I want to know what effect it’s had on… How many properties in the City of Cleveland do we have that are distressed and if we’ve done 20 or 30, what percentage is that? How much more do we need to do?

Ray: It’s a small percentage, and do we need to do more? Many more? Yes. However, if it is that one broken window on a block, before the whole block is unraveled, the fabric of the community has fallen apart, then you have a way of holding things together. Now, if it’s on a street where 50 % of the houses have been abandoned, what is the market value and will the receiver be able to sell the property? The nice part about receivership is that the receiver can not only receive the money they put in, but their realtor’s fee their management’s fee, their legal fees, all of those fees can be packed in.

Ray, this really puts you under duress as a judge, because you’re going to have to have the wisdom of Solomon in going ahead and keeping the non-profits, in particular, from swashbuckling and going ahead and making a profit for themselves. We’ve seen how they tend to aggrandize the past and if they set up a program to do this, it’s really going to make it where you’re going to have to put your foot down.

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.

Candid With Camera – Through Chuck’s Eyes

Chuck and I got on the subject of baseball, the waterfront and the Pipeyard.

“The guy from Pittsburgh was for real. Actually, he asked me ‘how many of those condos do you have down there?’ (Referring to the Spitzer homes at Harborwalk) None. ‘Well, if I was you, I’d have about 10. He said $160,000 is a steal. If that was in Pittsburgh or anywhere else, those are half a million dollar condos. He said if I was you I’d have about 10 about now.

“We don’t realize it. He told me that people in Pittsburgh drive to Maryland to be on their boats every weekend. He said we don’t have enough dockage here. Behind the Journal, he envisioned digging all that out and putting a marina down there. And people would come. People would come from Pittsburgh just to sit on their boats, just for the weekend. He said ‘You guys just don’t know what you have here.’ He wanted that whole area.

“They say our stadium is the right thing. It really is. (And) I don’t know how Avon’s going to do it. I really don’t know how. After all my involvement out there and talking to people in the different leagues…it’s independent baseball. It’s not affiliated (with MLB). And those guys are out to make a buck. And they’re going to make a buck no matter what. And if the city gets hurt, the city gets hurt. I will say (former Mayor Craig) Foltin was not going to let himself get into debt $5 million over a baseball stadium. Every one we went to, if you had 600-700 people in the stands… They’re putting $9 million out there in the baseball stadium.

“We’ve got Cleveland State coming out here. We have summer baseball. We’ve got the high school kids coming out there. And it’s debt-free. It really is. We did it with the recycle money. I know a bunch of people bitched and moaned and groaned…there’s only so many playgrounds we can put out there. We have’em in every park. So he took 2 years allocations and put it in there. What people don’t realize, when they were out there bad-mouthing it, US Steel invested $250,000. US Steel. What are you telling US Steel?! They thought it was worthy enough. I went to US Steel there, I was there that trip. The one thing I did like about my involvement, is what I got to see.

We went to Pittsburgh, and met with the high-ranking US Steel officials. All they wanted to talk about was baseball. All morning long, all they talked about was Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians. What they found was, in their state, communities look favorably on a corporation that gives back to a community. They put $250,000 back into our community. Lorain National Bank floated an interest-free $50,000 loan, so that we could pay that off. That’s two corporations that put money into it, and we’ve got people out there saying… It’s because of that $175,000, those figures that you see…yea, OK, so we did. So we did do it. Nobody said we didn’t. You’ve got Cleveland State playin’ in here, and the Cuyahoga County commissioners are still pissed because they’re (CSU) here in Lorain County, to the point that they’re talking about redoing old League Park to get’em back. Because that’s a black eye on them.

“When their coach came out, he came to me, he comes into my office and says, ‘Well, what are you doing out there?’ I said, Coach, we’re a ways from there, we don’t have much time. He said, ‘There’s no place in northern Ohio for Division-1 baseball. That field, I’ve seen it, I know what you’re doing. You guys can make it a nice complex.’ This is what the coach told me. He came up from Louisville. So I said ‘Foltin, he wants to meet with us.’ So we bring him up there, we talk, and he says, ‘Well, what about next spring?’ I said, There’s no way we’re gonna get it up for next spring. And the coach says, ’Well, what if we buy sod and I give you my baseball team to put it in?’

“How can we say no? It’s free labor now. So his baseball team sodded it. They put all the sod in. You saw it when it was done. Things started snowballing, I’d have never thought that they’d have been opening up April 3rd. Never thought. There’s absolutely no way, Coach, forget it, it’s not happenin’. We can’t get it done. This was October! He’s in my office begging! I said No, Coach, it’s just not gonna happen. And I’ll be a son-of-a-bitch, THAT got DONE, and it got done on a trip in December. He’s here begging in October and we’re, in December, begging US Steel for money. And you know what? They bought US lunch!

So, here they are, the highest ranking officials in US Steel, and all they wanted to do was talk baseball. We were in there all morning, and they said, we’ve got work to do. We’re gonna buy you guys lunch, and we could talk all afternoon, but we’ve gotta get back to work. Fact is, when we left, the Rooney family said, ‘We could’ve got more. We underestimated what they were willing to give; we could’ve got more.’

“But it’s amazing, how people perceive things differently outside of Lorain, and how we perceive ourselves. We have to change our image. We have to change our image, and it’s part of this plate fee, it’s part of this…I know, I’m not going to pay it, I work in Lorain, it’s not going to affect me, and it’s going to be a bitter pill for people to swallow.” I told him what it’s going to cost my wife and I, and he agreed, “It’s gonna hurt. But who’s gonna do it? We can’t wait for Betty Sutton to bring it in.”

Candid With Camera – Part IV

I got quite a bit of paperwork from Chuck that day. Paperwork, with a lot of large numbers. Those large numbers are costs. Which were followed by small numbers, which was money that he could spend. Not a good pairing at all.

I got to see the Rehab Project plan for ’09-’10. Twenty-three streets/roads in the City of Lorain scheduled for work, ranging from replacement, resurfacing and curb replacement, to rehab with ramps and curbs and more. The total cost for that work is a little over $4.9 million. The money coming in from OPWC Grants and Loans and Revolving Loans, Permissive and Gas Taxes, Storm Utility Funds, and SIB Loans is such that the $4.9 million needs to be whittled down to roughly $2.2 million.

“What street to you tear out of there? What street do you take out? I told you to take a look at (Winger and W. 38th) last night.” I did, and had pictures up previously. 38th, between Winger and Cambridge looks like something from a war zone in the Middle East. (I had mistakenly gone to 38th between Cambridge and Miami first. They were beautiful.)

“I think we paved (W. 38th and 39th last year) last year. We (also) did (Winger). We can still do that. There are some streets in here that we did. We can do more with more, but I’m going to try and do it differently.

“Look at Reid Avenue right now. Look what it costs. ($721,337.50) That’s one street. That’s one year’s $15 license plate fees. That’s one year! We’re looking at this NOW.”

We strayed from our discussion a bit, as something came up in the conversation. Looking over the paperwork, Chuck mentioned the compost he’s working on.

“That took a long time for me to get through. Used to be we’d take the leaves, have to take’em to BFI, bring’em back… Now, we just put’em in the back, we grind’em… (we) don’t make a lot of money, but I’m saving the disposal fees, the hauling fees, and we’re selling the compost for cheap. It’s really a pretty good product. Pandy’s bought us out last year.”

Pointing to a list, “We call these crack-n-fills. We blow everything out, put the asphalt in, and then come back and seal it and pat it.” Chuck rattled off over a dozen streets from memory, streets that needed to be blown out. “Then we’ll try to crackfill Erie and Broadway. We have what we call a ‘heat lance.’ What people say we don’t do, we do do. Rita was done that way. If you were there yesterday and saw Winger, Rita was done that way. We took Rita and blew all Rita out. It’s a heat lance. (The crew) has to wear (full body covering) because the stones will burn you. The lance heats it up. It blows out the cracks and dries it, it dries the cracks. With concrete, we have to put some asphalt in it (top it with concrete) and then we’ll come back and crackseal it. The streets we do hold out. And we get 5-6 years out of them. We do do that. We just don’t do it everywhere. And if (some folks) don’t see it done on their street, we just don’t do it.

“Can I do that now? Yea! But can I do it in April? No. We know how to patch a hole. It takes time. There’s 579 lane miles out there. I’m trying to patch what I can patch and get people through the streets so these people don’t damage their cars. And then we sit there and try to evaluate what we can save. We know what calls we’re getting. We know where our bad spots are. And we also know what’s beyond our repair. West 38th and 39th Street is beyond what we can do there. We know that.”

Candid With Camera – Part III

Part I is here , part II is here.

(We started talking about the plate tax.)

“The $5 license plate tax was imposed by Mayor Parker, and that was in 1981. I don’t know where everyone is getting 1988. And that $5 has always gone towards roads. Always been (that way). I could take it all the way back to 1981, I can show where all that money’s been spent. They say we can’t track it. I can track it through P.O.’s (purchase orders), I can track it through everything. Right now, there’s $150,000 going towards our share is going on Oberlin Avenue, it’s going on asphalt materials,… Fact is, there’s about $20,000 unencumbered right now, that I’m trying to hold back, to get us through the rest of this year. That $5 license plate (tax) goes toward that crappy winter mix we use. It’s stuff that you have to buy.

The problem with the roads in Lorain is the freeze-and-thaw cycle. The garbage trucks are not getting any smaller in this town. They’re getting bigger.”

Chuck made an observation about the garbage trucks that make their rounds throughout Lorain. Toward the forward part of the truck, by the cab, is something called a ‘cheater wheel.’ It’s usually up in the air. When the vehicle reaches a certain weight, that wheel, or set of wheels is supposed to descend, to help distribute the weight of the load, and lessen the wear and tear on the roads. He has yet to find a truck with the wheels down. The last truck that he saw, the rims were there, but the tires were not.

“That’s one day a week, every week, one of those trucks comes up and down our streets. On a street like yours, where you have a concrete curb and gutter, and asphalt street, it floats, it’s not hooked into anything. When it’s mushy…, (notice how all the curbs are staggered, they’re not even anymore), the trucks and even the school buses are up and down on the streets.”

When trying to patch holes, when it’s damp, it’s not simply a matter of ‘blow(ing) out the hole.” When it rained earlier this year, Tower Boulevard was under water for 3 days. “Dig a hole, and take the water out. See how fast the water comes back in at that time of year. The ground is saturated. I can blow all the water you want out. I told Tony, ‘I’ll put a guy out there, and put him on a roller. It’s only for show. The ground’s too wet, nothing in there’s going to last, it’s going to stay as long as if I had someone stand there and tap it.’ It’s just not going to happen. Hopefully we can get a week or two out of it, just to prevent flats and damage. People just don’t understand that.”

“In 1998, Congress passed a law that allowed vehicles to (become even heavier). How many of our roads meet that spec? How many roads were built prior to 1998 to meet that spec? Fact is, under the Koziura administration we tried to do Oak Point Road. We put it in at a certain depth, the concrete. We bolstered it pretty good. The residents fought us. They said they weren’t landing airplanes down there. We had to actually go from 9 inches to 8 inches, reduced it. We had to scale it back because they didn’t want what we initially designed out there. What happened out there? We had to scale it back because they didn’t want to pay for it. And, at the time, their spokesperson was Lori Kokoski.

“It’s not popular. Anytime that you tell people…. We could go through, right now, and reassess everybody. We can do that. Legally, we can do that, because you only get 20 years out of your street. Every 20 years you can go through a reassessment. Most people don’t understand that they’ve never been reassessed, they’ve paid a one-time assessment fee. And we’ve been picking up the cost… We could do a 50% assessment fee. There’s other ways of doing this. There really is, besides the license plates. It’s just who can pay, and how much do you want to pay?”

“There’s a lot of things that go into our streets that people don’t understand. What’s causing the damage? What’s doing the damage? Tony got a real eye-opener, I’m going to show it to you. Here’s a list of streets that we looked at. These are on nobody’s list right now. These are on nobody’s list.”

The spreadsheet is titled “City of Lorain Plate Tax Increase Projects”

Project                                Limits                             Type        Useful Life                 Constr/Eng Costs

Oberlin Ave                W. 30th to W Erie               Rehab              10                         $ 1,100,000
Washington Ave         N. Ridge Rd to W.37th           ”                    10                        $ 357,000
Clinton Ave                 E 42nd to S. Corp. Limit        “                    10                        $ 218,000
Pearl Ave                    E 36th to S. Corp Limit          “                    10                        $ 587,000
S. Broadway               Cooper Foster to “                  “                     10                        $ 182,000
Reid Ave.                    W. 21st to W. 5th St.              “                     10                       $ 738,000
Elyria Ave                  E 39th to E 21st St                  “                     10                       $ 769,000
Narragansett             Edgewood to West End           “                     10                       $ 750,000
SR 611 Colorado        W Corp Limit to Abbe         New                   20                      $1,000,000
Tower Blvd                Leavitt to Falbo                  Rehab                 10                       $1,500,000
Colorado                      E Erie to Henderson St.         “                     10                       $ 542,000
Oberlin Ave
       Engr Fees             N Ridge Rd to W 30th           “                     10                       $ 300,000
Jaeger Road
Improvement             Kolbe Rd to Leavitt             New                  20                       $4,000,000
Cooper Foster            Oberlin to Broadway          Rehab                10                       $ 350,000

                                                                                                    Subtotal = $12,393,000