There is a lot of anger and dissatisfaction with government at all levels, and we do not hear enough about successful government operations. We heard from a guy campaigning for President who recently said, "Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves," who basically identified "American carnage" as his view of the current landscape. We can all be proud of Cleveland Housing Court as an example of a government institution that is working and is highly successful. It is a model in Ohio and the United States largely because of the direction of Judge Raymond Pianka.
Pianka passed away this weekend and he was a giant in the struggle to preserve and protect affordable housing. He was a really good judge because he was fair and tried to work with landlords and tenants who were trying to follow the law. People might not be aware that there are only two Housing courts in Ohio (Cleveland and Toledo) and they make the process so much more responsive to people. Pianka wanted to work with the tenants who came before him as well as the landlords. He pressured landlords to keep their properties safe and decent and did not want tenants to just take matters into their own hands and withhold the rent. There is a legal way to put rent into escrow, and his staff were always willing to help the tenant with this process. He created a model mediation program that should be replicated at other local municipal courts who are often not welcoming to the tenant who shows up not understanding the law. Pianka hired smart people who did all they could to help to meet the needs of the community. He always pushed the staff to be responsive and helpful to taxpayers no matter if they were sitting on the right or left side of the court.
"It has been my privilege to be the Housing Court Judge for more than half of the Court’s 'life.' During that time, the expertise of the Court’s staff has grown, as has our ability to fulfill the original goal of the Housing Court: the coordinated, consistent, fair adjudication of housing cases and resolution of housing-related issues in the City of Cleveland."
All of the issues facing Cleveland's housing community were seen everyday by the Judge Pianka and his staff including the lead issues, the destruction of affordable housing, evictions, bedbugs, foreclosures and houses that are in disrepair. He has always been available when we asked for help. In January, Robert Fuchs, Cleveland Housing Court staff presented at the monthly Cuyahoga Affordable Housing Alliance meeting. Gary Katz, another staff, presented in September at CAHA and is a regular participant at our Housing 101 over the last three years. They are responsive to providing numbers to NEOCH and other agencies on evictions, put-outs and mediations. Pianka was the one lifeline for many in the community when we were being flooded by foreclosures. He did all he could to provide some sanity to an insane situation. During the height of the foreclosure crisis in the early 2000s, Judge Pianka stepped forward to act as the only law in what he had to see was 1870s Deadwood South Dakota without order and where the predatory and land barons were destroying the town. I have personally witnessed his attempts to show compassion within the law when a senior citizen showed up without any understanding of what is going on with their housing. He made the law understandable for we the people.
Here is my best example why it will be hard to replace Judge Pianka. There is a rule in Public Housing and much of the subsidized tenants in the community that they have to pay a minimum rent of $25 or $50 per month, but if this is impossible they can be offered a "hardship exemption." Judge Pianka understood the rules and demanded that tenants be offered the hardship exemption before being evicted. If they were not offered the exemption the case was delayed or dismissed, because the landlord knew the rules and did not follow them. I have seen many of my constituents show up facing eviction and that was the first time anyone mentioned a "hardship exemption." The suburban judges should follow this same rule, but they often let the eviction proceed. It is a little thing, but it was fair and saved many from evictions.
I have seen both landlords and tenants from around the area come down to the Justice Center to get copies of the easily understandable forms that the Cleveland Housing Court offers. The staff are great about talking through the eviction process and what is going to happen before they go into the court. They try to avoid the stain of an eviction on a person's record or the humiliation of putting all their belongings on the sidewalk. No councilman, neighbor, or tenant wants to have their stuff put on the street. Judge Pianka understood all of this as a former Councilman and he always tried to act in the best interest of the community. We will miss Judge Pianka and his sudden death will leave a huge hole in the struggle to preserve and expand affordable housing in Cleveland.
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