A Discussion With Mike Piepsny of the Cleveland Tenants Organization
By Demetrius Barnes
Street Chronicle: Tell me about CTO?
MP: CTO was created in 1975. The Ohio Landlord Tenant Law passed in 1974. So there was this new law that tells landlords their responsibilities and tenants their rights, but no one knew about it. So CTO was created to provide information on that. Through the years we’ve developed programs related to handling rental rights information, preventing evictions, preventing renters caught in a home in foreclosure from being forced out. We have an organizing program where we help tenants organize in large apartment complexes to hold their landlord accountable, and we have a program that helps the people that are in the homeless shelters enter into stable housing. Our mission is to preserve and expand safe decent and affordable rental property. And if you look county wide about 35% of people rent, and in the city of Cleveland over 50 % of the people rent.
MP: Okay, well, I went to college at Cleveland State. I was a Political Science major
And I didn’t know what to do with that. So I went to law school and while in law school, I took a class helping people that were being evicted helping fight their eviction. I took a class on Housing Law with Mike Foley who is now a practicing attorney. When I finished law school, Mike gave me a call and said, “Hey, you need a job?” I was actually working for a law firm and did not enjoy it. I came over to Cleveland Tenant’s Organization; Mike [Foley] was the Assistant Director. Mike became the Director in I think about 1999, and in 2006 he ran for State Representative and won. I took over and have been the Director every since.
SC: What would you like to see done with all the abandoned housing in Cleveland?
MP: Well ideally, a lot of the houses are abandoned because the people were getting into mortgages that they couldn’t afford and the bank took over the property. The banks do not want to be landlords, but ideally we would like to see the homeowner be either a tenant in the house or if they can rent those properties. Banks don’t want to be landlords, but ideally if we can keep people in the property those buildings won’t get stripped of the plumbing, of their aluminum siding. When [the property is stripped] it reduces the property value of about 80%. So, if we can keep people in properties, this is what I would like to see.
SC: What happens to renters in a foreclosed property?
MP: Well, up into 2009 if you look at property law (about 200 years of property law), when a property changed hands and a new owner took over a lease [that lease went] with the property. So a tenant living in the property if it’s sold, a tenant has a right to stay through the term of the lease. But when it was a foreclosure it actually terminates the lease. The tenant [may not have] known about [the foreclosure] and they [are often in danger of being] thrown out of the property. In 2009, President Obama was able to work with Congress and pass a law that provided some protection to tenants. If they are a bona fide tenant, they have a right to stay in the property and finish their lease. If they don’t have a leases they have a right to a 90 day notice before the bank can pursue an eviction. So it gave some protections [to the foreclosure victims] here in Cuyahoga County. Although the [Housing Court] Judge Pianka’s been very active about letting tenants know about those rights, the rest of the County [judges] do not. So, if the tenant doesn’t know the federal law and the people don’t know the federal law, they go to court and the bank will file an eviction. They are [then] being evicted because they don’t know the federal law and they didn’t bring it in as a defense. So renters are still being removed from their property in Cuyahoga County. The County Department of Development actually funds us to reach out to those tenants. We do about 5,000 counsels a year and we talk to about 2,000 households, but that’s 3,000 households that could have stayed in the property that didn’t because they didn’t contact us.
SC: Do you think landlords have too much power and should the Landlord Tenant Law be reopened and improved?
MP: There are some areas of the Landlord Tenant Law that could use clarification. Under Mayor Jackson’s leadership when he was the Councilman in Ward 5 we were able to pass legislation in the City of Cleveland. In 1999, about 10 years ago I think it was, [we were able to pass legislation] clarifying some of the landlord tenant requirements. It’s not so much who has more power, the law is fair but there are some areas where it’s just not clear. [For example], who has the right to order responsibility [for a property]? Although I wouldn’t mind seeing those addressed in Ohio Landlord Tenant Law, once it is opened up, it could mean things are changed that have a negative impact on tenants.
SC: If the landlord is entering your property without notice what should you do and can a tenant be compensated by landlords for violating the law?
MP: Okay, in Ohio a landlord have to give 24-hour notice before entering your property. When we train landlords we tell then do it in writing so the tenant has a notice and you have a copy. A lot of landlords assume because it’s their house they have the right to go in whenever they want. Although that’s not true, it is the landlord’s house, but it is the tenant’s home. If the lease does not say anything about changing locks tenant’s can change the lock and not give the landlord a key.
If the landlord gives them 24-hour notice the tenant still has to let him in, and if an emergency happens because the pipes are leaking or someone passed away or something, they could break in and the tenant could be held responsible for that. But tenants do not have to give the key to the landlord unless the leases says so. So if a landlord comes in without giving proper notice a tenant should notify them of that in writing. They can certainly contact us. We have form letters they can use and if a landlord continues to do it or retaliates against a tenant, they can actually sue in a small claims court. They can sue for any actual damages. Or if the landlord is retaliating against them there are also some additional protections in the Cleveland Landlord Tenant Ordinance that I told you about, where a Judge could automatically fine a landlord for retaliation between $50 and $500 and that money could go to the tenant.
SC: What are the biggest issue tenants have in Cleveland at this time?
MP: Well, it’s not necessary a rental issue…every body knows Cleveland is very poor.
We’ve lost a lot of good jobs. There are jobs but they don’t pay enough. Someone working minimum wage, I believe has to work between 2 and 3 jobs just to pay for rent. So tenants don’t have a lot of income to be able to afford their home. HUD says you shouldn’t pay more than 30% on rent and in Cleveland more than half the people pay more than 30% of their household on rent. So rents here are low because tenants can’t afford it. Landlords can’t raise the rent as often as they may need to maintain the property; they can’t rent the property for more money because there just aren’t the jobs here. It poses a challenge to the housing stock and the neighborhoods. So I think these are the biggest challenges. The great majority of our calls are related to the landlord not maintaining the property, not repairing it, although it’s their responsibility.
Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle December 2011 published by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.