By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
When did it become a crime to be retired and poor? Or working poor? Or an older American, possibly disabled, who cannot climb a ladder and paint a 3-story house?
Across the U.S., I’m appalled to learn that city code enforcers punish homeowners on tight budgets, fining them thousands of dollars, ordering them to court, and throwing them in jail for not keeping their home attractive.
Lancaster, Ohio takes a hard line on code enforcement
The latest example: Lancaster, Ohio. The Columbus Dispatch reports that Sean Fowler, the city’s code-enforcement director, conducted more than 5,000 code inspections last year, citing city homeowners for code violations.
Lancaster code enforcement citied Anna and Bill Crawford for peeling paint on their century-old home. The couple knows the house needs to be painted, but, at age 69 and 74, it’s a daunting task. Living on military pensions, the Crawfords say that they cannot afford to pay professionals to repaint their home.
The homeowners weren’t able to fix the code violation promptly. They received that citation in November, as winter approached. Yet the city gave them only 30 days to repaint their home, or face a fine of $1,000 or 6 months in jail.
The punishment doesn’t fit the “crime,” if you can even call this a crime. Lancaster city government apparently thinks the best way to spruce up its image is to beat up on it’s own citizens, struggling to keep a roof over their heads.
A small city with low median incomes and high debt
Lancaster is a small city with a population of less than 40,000, about 28 miles from Columbus. As of 2016, median household income is about $41,000, and median home value is about $123,600. Median gross rent in 2016 was $766.
And Lancaster carries a lot of debt, for a city of its size. These are figures from 2006.
Lancaster isn’t helping its citizens stay in their homes, or assisting taxpayers with home maintenance. The city seems to be on a mission to hit homeowners with punitive fines and threats of going to jail.
That’s likely to drive people out of their homes.
How does hitting up its citizens with fines, under threat of being thrown in jail, help to improve the lives of taxpaying constituents?
It’s one thing to sanction irresponsible landlords for health code violation, or to fine business owners for illegal dumping.
But that’s not what’s happening in the case of the Crawfords, or many of their neighbors, who cannot magically fix up their homes on 30 days’ notice.
Wouldn’t it be better to connect homeowners with the help and support they need? Aren’t real communities supposed to help their neighbors?
Or is that out of fashion in the 21st century?
Take a look at the city’s expenditures as of 2006. If you go to the link, and click on the blocks, you’ll see that Lancaster was spending nearly $28 million for salaries and wages.
The Crawfords and other city homeowners and residents are paying the salaries and wages of the code enforcers, city police, local judges and other so-called public servants.
Whose interest is really being served in cities like Lancaster, by taking a hard line on code enforcement?
No HOA here
Notice — there is no HOA governing the Crawfords’ neighborhood . This is a city government.
What we’re seeing is the HOA-ization of local government, with criminal penalties for being poor and retired.
But it’s not that surprising, when you look at the Big Picture of homeownership in America.
For the past 50 years, U.S. housing policy has heavily favored deed restricted, HOA-governed development. The prevailing model of collective ownership, with private (corporate) governance of residential communities has conditioned local governments in the U.S. to normalize a neighborhood penal code. That includes forcing one’s neighbors to keep their home HGTV “attractive” at all times, or face the dire consequences.
In HOA-ville, the standard methods for enforcing rules and codes are to impose monetary fines, place a lien on the noncompliant home, and threaten (and sometimes follow through with) foreclosure on a lien that’s usually less than $10,000.
An HOA lien is usually a mere fraction of the value of most homes, even modest homes. The punishment certainly does not fit the “crime.”
The HOA industry argues that homeowners “agree” to this onerous system and that they accept a “contractual” relationship with their HOA upon taking ownership of their homes.
But now we see some City governments copying the HOA-governance model, but taking it up a notch by treating struggling homeowners as common criminals.
It’s clear evidence that America is on the wrong track — putting the value of the city’s property before the value of its people.
Retired military couple scrambles to paint Lancaster home to avoid more jail time The Columbus Dispatch, By Sheridan Hendrix, March 30, 2019