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'The Hell Hole'

Fighting for safe rental housing in Bowling Green

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Fighting for safe rental housing in Bowling Green

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Jared Myers and his roommates referred to their house on North Summit Street as “The Hell Hole” because of the multitude of fire and health hazards and habitability issues. They also called it “The Hole” for short, because there was a large, open cistern hole in their backyard.

“Living there quite possibly will be the worst place I’ve lived in my entire life,” Myers said.

Myers and his three roommates wanted a place to live together their junior years, but they were a bit late to the house hunt, so they walked down North Summit Street and decided to knock on the door of a house and ask for an impromptu tour.

“If we would have had more time and went with a Newlove (Realty) representative, probably would not have rented there,” he said.

They only noticed some of the issues with the home but nothing that prevented them from jumping at the opportunity and signing a lease from August 2019 to August 2020. Much of the damage on the walls was covered with decorations and tapestries for aesthetic purposes and they didn’t see most of the issues, Myers said.

He said the previous tenants blocked the downstairs bathroom with a couch, because using it was “pointless.” Myers said the downstairs bathroom was in poor condition and so small that anyone sitting on the toilet would hit their knees on the sink.

Myers said many of the larger issues, like a clogged gutter and roof leak leading to water damage on the kitchen walls and floor that caused it to sink inward, loose nails on the porch and a bathroom door detached from its hinges — which Myers said was attached and working when they toured the house — were noticed after they moved in.

They made requests to fix the issues, many of which presented fire and health hazards — like exposed wires, a lack of sufficient carbon monoxide and smoke detectors and evidence of rodent nesting — on multiple occasions; however, Myers said the attentiveness and consistency from the property’s management company, Newlove Realty Inc., and the company that owned the property, Eyecon Enterprises Ltd., was lacking.

Myers' first email to BGSU’s Student Legal Services was on Sept. 23, 2019, about a month after they moved in. 

“They did all the fixes in big batches at a time. But they were just super slow on repairs; it was painful,” Myers said. “They would definitely pick and choose what they decided to fix, probably the ones that would legally get them in trouble.”

He said Newlove’s reasoning for the slowness of repairs was because they had to await approval from Eyecon. 

“But the person we paid our rent to lives in Bowling Green … so how hard is it to contact this person?” Myers said. “But they dodged my phone calls, they knew my phone number for sure … I would call and I wouldn’t get a pickup, but my roommate would call and they’d pick up.”

This led to Myers working with the BGSU Student Legal Services on three separate occasions to inform Newlove of an impending escrow — which entailed paying the courthouse their rent money until the cited issues were fixed, at which point the rental company could collect the rent.

In order to protect the identities and respect the privacy of parties involved, these are scanned copies of original documents with some names and addresses redacted.

They did not have to follow through on the escrow, as Newlove fixed the issues after they were informed of the possibility of one. But Myers said the fact that he had to do it three times was “unfortunate.”

When called to comment on the matter, the person from Eyecon who answered the phone declined to provide their name and said any complaints raised “have been addressed or are in the process of being addressed.”

Andy Newlove, a broker for Newlove Realty, said he couldn’t provide much information because the company did not own the house, they only managed it. He also explained that with all rental properties Newlove manages but does not own, there is a set dollar amount to fix  certain issues. However, if an issue exceeds that limit, the company must get approval from the owner before making any repairs.

“I think one thing that I wish BG would do,'' Myers said, “even if it’s every other year, they need to inspect these places. You can drive by — I deliver food — it’s incredible to see the damage you can see from the outside … it’s super scary.”

Myers' story is why he supports inspections of rental properties. Bowling Green City Council's Community Improvement Committee doesn't know how many other renters face these kind of issues and is pushing legislation to better protect renters like Myers.

The possibility of other stories like Myers' is why the CIC is calling for rental registration, licensing and inspections.

 

Bowling Green rental housing and inspections 

When it comes to rental housing, Bowling Green differs in some significant ways from other college towns in Ohio. 

A study conducted by the East Side Residential Neighborhood Group compared rental inspections of 59 cities in Ohio and Adrian, Michigan. Executive board member Rose Hess said the group chose “Ohio cities that had a fair number of rentals and cities that were similar to our town.” 

The group gathered information from four publishers that write and publish Ohio city ordinances: American Legal Publishing, Conway Greene, Municode and Walter Drane. The study found that Bowling Green is the “only medium-sized, college town” that does not have mandatory rental inspections.

Over 60% of housing units in the city are rental properties. The others are owner-occupied. To put the numbers into perspective, there are an estimated 11,374 residential housing units in Bowling Green, according to the 2019 American Community Survey published by the U.S. Census Bureau. That means 7,165 rental units go without inspections every year. 

Types of Housing Units in Bowling Green

This graph shows the amount of rental units compared to the amount of owner-occupied units in Bowling Green.

CIC Chair and 2nd Ward City Councilman John Zanfardino said “without a system in place, there’s no way of knowing the extent of the issues that need to be addressed.” He explained “universal” inspections would give a baseline of how many properties have specific issues.

Aside from the lack of regular inspections, there is another reason the amount of potential issues in rental properties remains unknown. Many students are renting for the first time, and “students don’t even know they’re living in unsafe housing,” Hess said.

 Zanfardino also speculated that some tenants may not raise concerns in fear of retaliation from their landlords. 

Over the past several years, the main focus of the CIC shifted to implement official licensing, registration and rental inspections in Bowling Green. The CIC, formed roughly three decades ago, currently consists of three members: Zanfardino, 4th Ward Councilman William Herald and At-Large Councilman Jeff Dennis.

The most recent draft of legislation to address these issues included several major recommendations:

  • Institute rental registration, so the record of rental units makes inspections possible.

  • Institute rental self inspections, done by the landlord or their designee, that follows a regularly updated exterior and interior checklist, which is also provided to prospective renters. 

  • Conduct random, annual inspections of a “manageable number of units” by an authorized third party.

At the most recent CIC meeting on April 8, various residents and landlords in Bowling Green were given the opportunity to share their thoughts about the committee’s recommendations.

Bowling Green native Kyle Genson owns one rental house in the city and attended the meeting to raise a concern about the $250 fee included in the registration process for each week a property is not registered with the city. 

Genson advocated for using an incentive, or “carrot,” as opposed to a punishment, or “stick,” to encourage people to cooperate. He also suggested registering owners instead of properties.

"I think there’s a positive way to do this. I think it boils down to the carrot and the stick,” he said. “A stick’s not going to help anyone, so what carrots can the city and BGSU offer?”

Dennis explained the “carrot” in this situation is that “good owners” will be given the opportunity to differentiate themselves from “problem landlords” in the city.

“I think you have owners that get into it, they get over their head, but they’re not bad people. They just get over their head, and they can’t put anything back into the property,” Genson said. “I think there’s a lot of benefits that the city and BGSU could put into this to make it great.” 

Gary Thompson, who owns several properties in Bowling Green, said property management isn’t easy. “I know there's a lot of people here that own rentals; they have to work their tail off to get them fixed up and get them rented,” he said.

He also owns a carpet-cleaning business and compared the apartments in Bowling Green as being in much better condition than some rental properties in Toledo.

"There might be some issues, but I don't think registering, inspections and licensing and charging fees of $250, $50 if you don't comply, that's not the American way, that's not the Bowling Green way. I'm against this ordinance. I don't need anybody to inspect my stuff. I take care of it," Thompson said.

Joan Newlove, the leasing manager for John Newlove Real Estate Inc. (which is not affiliated with Newlove Realty) said interior self-inspections are already done for her properties on an annual or biannual basis. She said she does not disagree with inspections of rental properties but needs to know if their checklists will be “grandfathered” into the proposed legislation. 

"If we've already done something of that nature (self-inspections), can we just move forward and transfer it to your form and use the dates that apply?" she asked.

Hess, executive board member of East Side, disagreed with the proposed concept of self-inspections. While some landlords say they complete their own inspections, Hess said the self-inspection process is currently “implicit” but passing legislation will make it “explicit,” so all involved parties are made aware.

“If they’re (landlords) honest, it’s good, but you can’t count on every landlord being honest. There’s no way to measure data, you need verification,” Hess said.

Falcon Media called several major rental companies in Bowling Green that did not have a representative speak at the CIC meeting and asked for their thoughts about the city trying to implement rental registration, licensing and inspections. Landlords from Copper Beech, Falcon’s Pointe and an employee from John Newlove Real Estate declined to comment. 

Broker Andy Newlove commented for Newlove Realty. “Whatever the committee comes up with, we’ll work to follow their recommendations or whatever the new rules are,” he said.

Greenbriar owner Bob Maurer said he doesn't have a problem with registration but doesn’t think it’s necessary and isn’t sure inspections are needed either. Maurer said he thinks it would “probably raise the rents, because the landlords will pass it on to the students.”

In regard to covering the cost of inspections, Dennis proposed a $10 yearly registration fee for each property in the city, which would cost about 83 cents a month. With over 7,000 properties in Bowling Green, Dennis said the fees could go toward hiring an “employee whose job it is to run this program full time.”

“For 40, 50 years, we’ve got along without them (inspections),” Maurer said. “I don’t think we have anything wrong with the apartments in the city of Bowling Green.”

Maurer also mentioned that if a landlord doesn’t fix an issue, any renter has the right to deposit their rent in escrow to the court. Additionally, he said BGSU students have access to Student Legal Services on campus. 

Students pay a $9 optional fee to use BGSU Student Legal Services, which “strives to assist students in responding to legal problems that may adversely affect their well-being or otherwise interfere with academic endeavors,” according to the BGSU website. Should a student waive that fee, they would not be eligible to utilize Student Legal Services.  

Steve Green, owner of Mecca Management, also raised concerns about rents potentially rising. He said he fears for students and citizens who rent because “many times the people who rent are the people who can least afford the increases.”

“I think right now is one of the worst times ever, on the heels of COVID to be implementing this kind of overreaching law to the people and citizens of Bowling Green who can least afford it,” Green said.

Average Cost of Rent in Bowling Green and Other Ohio Cities

This graphic shows of average rent prices in Bowling Green and other college towns in Ohio since January 2020. Zumper.com gathers data based on its postings of rental properties in each city.

Dennis said the purpose of inspections is to identify the “very few bad apples,” but noted that 85% of the rental properties in Bowling Green are “probably in fine shape.”

“It’s important to stress that landlords are not bad people. They’re not doing this because they’re vindictive; it’s the path of least resistance, and they’ve been doing it for decades,” he said.

Annual inspections are currently carried out for all hotels, public and commercial buildings, schools and common areas of large rental complexes; however, the city of Bowling Green does not enforce mandated inspections in smaller residential properties.

The Bowling Green Fire Department and Wood County Health Department conduct health and safety inspections on a complaint basis only; they cannot legally inspect a home for code violations unless requested by a tenant. If management requests an inspection, the tenant must be notified at least 24 hours in advance and must give the fire department permission to inspect their home. 

The Ohio Fire Code lists a number of violations, but a few common infractions BGFD Chief Bill Moorman has cited in rental housing units include defective or dismantled smoke detectors and electrical issues like old outlets and exposed wiring. The process of conducting an inspection is “a lot of common sense,” he said. The fire department looks for possibly hazardous areas, like parts of a home with electrical wiring.

“We typically go through the property with a resident or management. We would make them aware of the issues we may find, and they would get a copy of the report along with the tenant. Then they would be given a certain amount of time to take care of that issue, and we’d go back for reinspection,” Moorman said.

When the BGFD inspected Jared Myers' home on June 24, 2020, of the 43 codes listed, 15 were given an inspection result of “pass,” 22 were given an inspection result of “N/A” and six were given an inspection result of “Correction Needed,” meaning a code was violated. The report noted a lack of carbon monoxide detection systems on the first and second floors, exposed wires and an “abatement of electrical hazards.”

BGFD and WCHD Reports for North Summit Street House

In order to protect the identities and respect the privacy of parties involved, these are scanned copies of original documents with some names and addresses redacted.

The WCHD inspected the house on the same day. The report cited observations of rodent nesting, mold growth caused by water damage, live plant growth, rotting wood and peeling and chipping paint on the exterior of the house, peeling and chipping paint on the interior of the house, boarded and broken windows, no air filter in the furnace and an unsecured floor vent in Myers' bedroom — a danger he feared would result in someone falling through, as it led all the way to the basement.

From 2017 to 2019, the WCHD reported 101 complaint-based inspections of various rental properties around Bowling Green. Of those inspections, the WCHD found 142 violations. In 2020, they recorded 96, totaling 197 complaint-based inspections within the past three years.

In order to protect the identities and respect the privacy of parties involved, these are scanned copies of original documents with some names and addresses redacted.

The BGFD inspected four properties in the past 10 months, including the house on North Summit Street. The other inspection reports can be viewed here: 

But despite the wide variety of violations found by the WCHD and BGFD over the years, there is no way for either department to find these violations unless they notice something on the exterior while passing by or an inspection is requested.

Although these issues were addressed multiple times in previous years, Zanfardino thought the council was more progressive than it has been in the past.

However, a key councilmember’s unforeseen death left the committee without the person who had spent years fighting for safe housing for renters in Bowling Green.

 

The death of Neocles Leontis

Neocles Leontis was a BGSU chemistry professor whose sudden passing on Dec. 8 last year shocked the Bowling Green community. He was a member of the CIC and a driving force behind the proposed legislation and goals of improving rental conditions for Bowling Green tenants.

The event that motivated Leontis to be an advocate for safer rental housing was the near death of his stepdaughter. 

It was in the middle of the night on May 1, 2009, when she awoke to a fire burning in the apartment next to hers. An investigation by the BGFD showed the alleged cause of the fire was a water heater in a bedroom closet without any separation from flammable objects like clothing and piles of papers. 

After speaking with BGFD Chief Moorman, who was part of the investigation at the time, Leontis discovered there was no law “that says you can’t put a water heater in a closet,” but he found that to be “very weird.” 

Fortunately, there were no casualties that night. 

“Back then I didn’t really know very much about what goes on in Bowling Green and I kind of assumed that the rental properties were inspected and were safe, but what did I know?” Leontis said in an interview with the BG News last year. 

Once Leontis came to better understand the issues surrounding rental properties in Bowling Green, he knew it was not only important to him but to a much larger community. 

“I owe it to our students,” he said. “I see I can make a difference and make sure something like that doesn’t happen to someone else’s child.” 

Leontis became a strong advocate for safe rental housing long before he ran for and was elected to council in 2019, which gave him a larger platform to push the issue.

Dennis and Leontis both ran for city council at the same time, 4th Ward and at-large seats, respectively. Through their campaigns, Dennis said he was fortunate to work closely with Leontis and understand his strong relationships with community groups like East Side Residential Neighborhood Group.

“In his short term on council, we went from having a possibility of exploring this issue, to it becoming a reality,” Zanfardino said.

After Leontis’s untimely death, Dennis was sworn into his predecessor’s position, knowing he “certainly had some big shoes to fill.” The law student worked closely with Leontis and recognized even outside Leontis’s role on city council, he impacted many lives in a multitude of ways.

“I don't think that I am going to come close to being able to accomplish the things he would’ve accomplished had he been able to finish his term. I think we do owe it to him and to the city of Bowling Green to make sure that we are pushing forward on these issues that he was so passionate about,” Dennis said.  

 

Current progress 

Unable to hold meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CIC has made little progress since March of last year. 

Councilman William Herald said this topic “could be controversial without public input,” and as a result, the CIC could not move forward with legislation without holding public meetings.

“We already have recommendations for (licensing and inspections). But in terms of bringing that forward in an environment where it’s hard to get public input, we thought that it would be better to hold off,” Herald said. 

The CIC held its first meeting since March 2020 on Nov. 9 to discuss the next steps moving forward. After a 4-3 vote from city council in favor of drafting the proposed legislation, the CIC now has two drafts for legislation — one for rental registration and one for licensing and inspection.

The draft resolution from the city mostly focused on creating a rental registry and a checklist of items to be inspected within a rental unit but was considered to be inadequate by Zanfardino. He said “a registry alone would not begin to address the issues for renters.”

“The administration issued a draft resolution that was, in my mind, pretty unbalanced and favorable towards landlords. So, my contribution was to take the draft from the city and try to make it more aware that there are multiple stakeholders,” he said.

Currently, the city and the CIC are working on creating a new law that would require landlords to register their rental properties. 

Herald said registration is the first step. 

“The reason we register is to get an idea of the properties, so we can then go through licensing. And part of the licensing process,” he said, “the process saying, ‘you can’t rent unless you are licensed, you can’t be licensed unless you register.’”

While the ultimate goal of the CIC would be to have regular, mandatory licensing, registration and inspections, Zanfardino said he doesn’t see it happening anytime soon because the proposed approach to rental housing in Bowling Green is something that needs to be eased into. 

He compared Bowling Green’s lack of rental oversight to the regular, mandated inspections in Oxford, Ohio. He named Oxford as a college town with rental housing policies that were more satisfactory for multiple stakeholders.

“That’s probably light-years from what we have. It’s not going to go from a laissez-faire, hands-off approach to expecting 100% inspections. It’s just too radical and too abrupt,” Zanfardino said.

At the CIC meeting on April 8, Dennis said the city has taken an “incremental” approach for 40 years and is “insufficient to address the problem.”

Herald agreed. “We want to achieve a balance where we’re not doing so little that it doesn’t have an impact but that we’re not being Draconian,” he said. “The idea of this being multi-phased is if it works, great, but if it doesn’t, then we’ll take the next step.”

Zanfardino and Herald said the topic of rental registries and inspections is considered to be controversial because of the vast number of people it would impact in the community. Due to sunshine laws, the CIC cannot hold meetings without public input, slowing down the process of passing legislation.

But for tenants like Jared Myers, mandated inspections of rental housing units should not be controversial, as he has experienced the downside of this lack of oversight.

He had advice to offer for first-time renters: every tenant should request both a fire inspection and health inspection of their housing unit on day one of the lease because there are many violations and possible dangers that would go unnoticed by most college students renting for the first time.

And he said pictures of the home are vital too.

“Take a picture of every square inch of your house when you move in, and take a picture of every square inch of your house when you move out.”

Myers said he wished there were some measures he had taken during his time on North Summit Street, but he now sees his experience and what he has learned from it as a cautionary tale for other young renters.

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