Property code debate quiet in Kent

By Diane Smith Record-Courier staff writer Published:

The maintenance code, expected to gain final approval at Kent City Council's Dec. 17 meeting and then go into effect in April, will require homeowners to make sure their houses are painted, their gutters are cleaned and their homes are free of trash and rodents.

But so far, only one resident, Norman Jennings, has voiced his concerns with the proposed code. And even he says he doesn't expect his friends and neighbors to join him in his opposition.

"Most of them say, 'I don't care, (council is) going to do whatever they want anyway,' " he said.

The code council is considering follows the footsteps of ones approved in Ravenna and Streetsboro in recent years.

While Kent's code has generated little controversy, a vocal outpouring preceded the approval of a similar code in Ravenna.

Like those codes, Kent's proposal would require homeowners to keep the exterior of their houses in good condition and free of debris. It also addresses painting, repair or replacement of damaged exterior walls, doors, porches, floors, steps, decks or roofs and windows. The code also addresses garages, barns, sheds and fences.

Kent already has a code that deals with property maintenance issues at rental units. The code council is now weighing would expand that code by also addressing single-family homes. Within two years, the code also would be applied to commercial and industrial structures.

Community Development Director Louis Zunguze said the code, which has been 18 months in the making, is designed to improve the community's image and help facilitate redevelopment efforts in the city. New businesses, he said, will be more willing to move to a town that keeps its older structures in good shape.

"How we look as a community goes a long way toward keeping people in town," he said. "You're judged by your appearance. Just like anything else, first impressions are important."

He said the city's staff will be willing to work with residents who are cited to give them ample time to comply, and will point low-income residents toward grants or loans they may be eligible for. There will also be an appeals board in place to hear complaints from those who fight a citation.

"It's not a big stick," he said. "It's a little stick."

But Jennings, a member of the city's board of zoning appeals, said while he is not opposed to encouraging property maintenance, there are better ways of accomplishing that goal than asking the government to mandate it.

The best way to encourage neighbors to clean up their act, he maintained, is simply to fix up your own home, which usually prompts neighbors to do the same.

"It should be a community effort," he said. "If a person's house is bad, there should be a group to go down there and help."

He said the code is just one example of residents giving up their rights to solve a problem in the community.

"At that point, you don't own your property," he said. "You're really just the custodian for the government."

But Jennings is apparently alone in his opposition. To date, no one has come to any of council's meetings where the code was discussed to voice similar concerns.

By contrast, a vocal outpouring of opposition preceded the adoption of Ravenna's code, said Bob Miller, Ravenna's chief building official.

"It took about three years to pass it," he said. "A lot of people were against having a code, period. For a long time you saw signs in yards that said, 'No code.' And the rental property owners came out in force. But we also had property owners who brought in photos of their neighbor's houses and saying, 'Look, this guy has a back porch that's falling off his house and he won't do anything about it.' "

Eventually, he said, the city won over residents and rental property owners by promising to help when a tenant is the cause of the problem and by consistently enforcing the code.

Miller attributed Ravenna's efforts to aggressive enforcement of the code.

"When we passed this, we made a commitment that we were going to go to the four corners of the city and find problems and address them," he said. "Complaint-driven ordinances don't work, and they can be prejudicial. You have one guy who's hammered to death because his neighbors don't like him, and then you have another guy whose property is a shambles because his neighbors don't care."

But the ordinance Kent is weighing would be complaint-driven, at least in the beginning.

Councilman Wayne Wilson, one of the council members pushing for the passage of Kent's code, said the city doesn't have the staff to enforce a maintenance code any other way.

"If people find out about the code, they may start fixing up their neighborhoods because they want to, not necessarily because of the code," he said.

He recalled one homeowner whose house was "a shambles" but refused to paint it until the court imposed a $100 fine for every day the house remained unpainted.

Two years later, Miller was thanked by an unlikely person _ the wife of the man who had refused to paint his house.

"She said, 'He wasn't going to do anything with that house until you forced him to do it,' " he recalled. "And then the man came around the corner and said, 'You know, it's the funniest thing. I'm out there mowing my lawn and people yell at me about how nice the house looks.' When you're asking people to fix their houses, you're asking them to put money in the bank."

Former Ravenna Councilwoman Mary Brett, who had pushed for the passage of Ravenna's code, said she believed most of the opposition to Ravenna's code came about because many people didn't understand what council was trying to do, and thought the city was trying to regulate their housekeeping instead of addressing safety issues.

Many people, she said, criticized the interior maintenance portion of the code, which addressed rental properties, and praised the exterior maintenance code, which addressed rental and single-family homes.

"Nobody wants to be told what to do," she said.

Brett and Miller pointed to entire blocks where improvements were made, particularly in the older part of town, where many homes were turned into rental units.

"Many people have commented on how Ravenna looks so much better now," she said. "If one house looks bad, it makes the whole neighborhood look bad. But if one person makes repairs, the next person will do it. It's just a matter of pride."

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