Protecting Our Housing Stock, Serving Our People

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In Cleveland Heights, we love our beautiful houses, which many people see as our city’s most valuable asset. And while I agree that our houses are one of our city’s biggest draws for new residents, I believe the jewel of our city is the people who transform our houses into homes.

To ensure that our housing stock remains a pillar of our city’s identity for generations to come, we must take steps to protect and preserve those unique and beautiful houses. And because many of our houses are approaching or have surpassed 100 years old, this also means that our houses need a lot of care and attention.

To that end, our city government must invest in building a robust, comprehensive Housing Department driven by two fundamental goals:

  1. Protect and enhance the quality of our housing stock, giving particular attention to the fact that many of our homes are older; and
  2. Help our residents:
    • understand our housing codes and processes,
    • connect with quality contractors,
    • navigate the inspection and resolution process, and
    • learn best practices for taking care of their properties moving forward.

With this in mind, what might a people-centered Cleveland Heights Housing Department—serving a city with older housing stock and with many residents on limited incomes—look like?

Simplify Processes and Increase Transparency

To begin, our Housing and our Building Departments could be merged into one department to streamline and simplify processes. This would eliminate jumping back and forth between these two departments to complete projects that will improve your property.

A Housing Department committed to service will also develop a clear set of standard procedures that residents can locate quickly and understand easily. This way, you know what to expect when you are working with the city to either resolve housing issues or to complete a project that requires permits, inspections, and approvals. These processes should also include mechanisms for flexibility to accommodate residents’ needs, while also maintaining a process that gets housing violations resolved in a timely manner.

Our Housing Department must adhere to these procedures consistently. If a resident requires an exception to these processes (beyond the built-in flexibility), that exception needs to be approved or denied in a transparent way. Exceptions to our established codes and regulations should be reviewed and granted by either multiple department heads (e.g., the Housing Director, the Planning Director, and the City Administrator) or by a citizen committee with a documented explanation for granting or denying the exception.

Together with our Planning Department, we should also conduct a deep dive into our housing and building codes and give them the overhaul they need—taking outdated codes off the books, eliminating redundant or contradictory codes, and modernizing codes for changing needs. In fact, our new Planning Director, Eric Zamft, appears poised to begin this work, having recently proposed a series of modifications to update our regulations for garages.

Build Our Team

When an organization develops a focused mission with clearly defined goals and then builds an institutional culture around that, then its team members become invested in reaching these goals. There is “buy in,” and as a result, quality of work improves in a way that further reinforces the overall mission.

Our Housing Department currently outsources most of our inspections to SAFEbuilt, and the department is now down to one active inspector on staff. Unfortunately, when an organization farms out much of its work to private contractors, rarely are these contractors an integral part of the mission-driven team. They are not invested in reaching larger goals or upholding established standards of service.

We need to begin the work of building back our Housing Department with strong, qualified staff committed to our city’s goals of protecting and enhancing our housing stock. This isn’t something that can happen all at once—we need to hire the right people and provide good leadership.

In time, all housing inspection work should be done by in-house inspectors. Each inspector needs to be certified with the State Board of Building Standards, and they must maintain their certification through continuing education. When we enact this minimum standard, our inspectors will be qualified to assess every facet of a property—from general residential standards to plumbing and electrical and so on.

Give Our Team What They Need to Succeed

Our Housing Department is (finally) transitioning to a digitized data management system, Citizenserve. This increases not only efficiency but also the ability to track and assess overall information about our inspectors’ workloads and outcomes and to better understand citywide housing challenges.

In addition to all inspectors being given tablets for entering and adjusting data while in the field, they should also be given phones so residents can reach them easily.

Each inspector should be assigned a geographical domain. This will help our inspectors gain a nuanced understanding of their area’s unique characteristics and challenges as well as get to know their assigned neighborhoods better. They will handle all Housing Department inspection services of their domain—point of sales, complaints, rental inspections (done every three years), systematic owner-occupied exterior inspections (done every five years), and re-inspections for all of the above to ensure proper compliance, and so on. (This will also save us on gas mileage when we don’t have a handful of inspectors constantly criss-crossing each other all over the city.)

Further, to make sure our inspectors can focus on what they do best, we also need to bring on care-oriented community liaisons who will work with residents to:

  • understand our codes as well as our processes for enforcing them;
  • refer quality, affordable contractors;
  • serve as advisors and advocates if property owners are experiencing challenges with contractors;
  • work with residents to develop timelines for resolving violations and following up to make sure the work gets done on schedule;
  • connect property owners with resources if they need help affording repairs; and
  • facilitate inter-department coordination when a project requires actions from another city department.

We also need to hire at least one more office administrator to support the work of the inspectors and community liaisons—updating data, mailing notices, and so on.

This is just a snapshot of what an excellent Cleveland Heights Housing Department could look like. BUT . . . almost none of this is new—it follows many of the recommendations of the July 2020 Organizational Assessment of the Housing Department by Novak Consulting, which was commissioned by the City of Cleveland Heights.

(The above outline builds on the Novak report by also prioritizing a commitment to resident service, and it deviates from the report in advocating for a fully staffed department, rather than continuing to depend on SAFEbuilt private contractors.)

Some residents have voiced frustration with our city’s very slow implementation of Novak’s list of recommendations. And our City Manager responded by providing Council with a status update (pages 10–12). Meanwhile, residents continue to advocate for a robust, active Housing Department that meets the diverse needs of our properties and property owners.

The Cleveland Heights residents I’ve spoken with understand that change takes time, and, especially in government, decisions must be made carefully, thoughtfully, and transparently. But we have also witnessed the speed at which things can get done when there’s an institutional motivation to get them done.

Cleveland Heights is a bedroom community, with more residents than jobs, and the quality of our housing stock is fundamental to the health of our economy. And our people make this place our common home. Protecting the well-being of both through ongoing investment in our Housing Department needs to be one of our city’s highest priorities.