By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer
COVINGTON - You drink, you drug, you gamble, you hook - you walk.
In one of the toughest housing laws ever attempted in the Tristate, repeat criminal offenders here could soon find themselves forced to leave their apartments or homes.
And their landlords would lose the right to rent the property for a year.
Under Covington's proposed "two strikes and you're out" legislation, residents who commit more than one prostitution, drug, gambling or alcohol offense within a year would be out, said Covington City Solicitor Jay Fossett.
The law also would apply to owners of commercial properties and vacant lots where criminal activity such as prostitution or drug trafficking has repeatedly occurred.
Landlords who fail to evict criminal offenders could find the apartments where the offenses occurred closed for a year.
Fossett said that Newport officials have asked for a copy of the proposed legislation, which is modeled after a Louisville law adopted several years ago. Louisville officials said that law has not yet been tested in court.
Harold Simon, executive director of the National Housing Institute in Orange, N.J. said he's never heard of such far-reaching legislation by a local government in the United States.
Meanwhile, Gideon Anders, director of the National Housing Law Project in Oakland, Calif., questioned Covington's approach.
"We shouldn't be using a broad brush approach by essentially kicking people out of town and depriving them of a place to live," Anders said. "And what happens to innocent household members? It sounds to me like there are some property issues and due process issues involved in this."
Covington City Commission is expected to vote March 18 on an updated 26-page nuisance code that includes the "two strikes and you're out" proposal. The city delayed action on the measure for a couple of weeks to get feedback from Northern Kentucky landlords and to see if a state proposal that seeks to broaden the methods for serving citations on alleged offenders of code enforcement violations becomes law.
Lt. Col. Mike Kraft of the Covington Police Department said the proposed "two strikes and you're out" law would save officers on the street from having to repeatedly visit problem properties.
He added it's not unusual for police to respond to dozens of calls a year at certain problem properties.
But Charles Tassell, director of government affairs for the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Apartment Association, questioned whether the proposed legislation is the best way to deal with criminal activity at one's business or home.
"I would want to see a lot more detail on why they're doing this," Tassell said. He added his organization supports legislation such as Ohio's "quick evictions," or three-day evictions, for tenants who have illegal drugs at their apartment, as a way of controlling drug use on rental property.
Elsewhere in the Tristate, Cincinnati officials plan to soon ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review and reverse a lower court decision that held Cincinnati's 1996 legislation designating certain neighborhoods, such as Over-the-Rhine, as drug exclusion zones, is unconstitutional.
Covington Mayor Butch Callery said the "two strikes and you're out" measure is a proactive one and is not in response to a particular problem. Rather, it gives Covington officials another tool for dealing with problem properties and improving the quality of life in its neighborhoods, he said.
"Hopefully, we'll never have to use this," Fossett said. "But we wanted to have this in our arsenal in case something came up."
The proposal by Callery and city officials is the latest in a series of actions against criminal activity and blighted properties since Callery became mayor about three years ago.
Within the past year, the city commission made Banklick Street and 13th Street from Madison Avenue to the Ohio River one-way streets to deter drug dealers from cruising those streets.
In 2001, Covington officials formed the code enforcement department and the code enforcement board to hear cases involving blighted properties and fine offenders. Other changes include putting a full-time housing inspector in the police department, developing an aggressive block watch program and adopting strict new licensing regulations for massage parlors to deter prostitution and other illegal activities.
Simon questioned where people would go if forced to leave their owner-occupied or rental property in Covington.
A year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the federal government's zero tolerance drug policy in public housing. That policy allows entire families to be evicted from public housing for drug use by one member.
In a letter sent out by HUD last June, the agency urged local public housing directors to consider the facts in such cases, balancing the rights of household members who aren't involved in criminal activity against the general welfare of all of the housing authority's tenants.
"Such policies can be a substitution for poor policing and poor enforcement," Simon said. "If the problem is someone doing something illegal, the solution is good policing and good enforcement. Getting them out of the building is just moving the problem somewhere else."
Callery said the Housing Authority of Covington does take individual circumstances into account, such as last year's case when a tenant's grandson suspected of drug possession was cornered by police in his grandfather's apartment. The grandfather was not evicted.
"You have to look at these cases realistically and use some common sense," Callery said. "We have good policing. We have good enforcement. But we're not going to put up with criminal activity and blighted property in the city of Covington. They'll have to go to another city because we don't want it in Covington."
Under the proposed ordinance, Covington would notify a landlord after the first violation, Fossett said. After the second violation, the landlord would have to take immediate action, or the city could go to court and seek an order to padlock the apartment where the violation occurred.
The new law would shut down only problem apartments, not an entire multiunit building, Fossett said. The property would remain in the hands of the owner.
"This is aimed at all properties in the city," Fossett said. "There have to be at least two incidents to constitute a criminal nuisance. This could be aimed at a crack house or a place where prostitution is happening on a regular basis."
It isn't against the law for residents to get drunk within their own home or apartment, so they couldn't get tossed out for that, Fossett said.
Driving under the influence violations also don't apply under the proposed ordinance, but a Covington resident could be forced to vacate for two public intoxication violations, if the proposal is adopted.
"If you have people who are gathering on your property and drinking until 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning and your neighbors can't sleep, that could count," Fossett said.
A landlord, residential or commercial property owner who is cited twice must "abate the criminal activity nuisance" or the city can order the property vacated.
The landlord or property owner could get the shutdown order rescinded by resolving the nuisance within 14 days. Landlords also could avoid shutdowns by starting eviction proceedings against the troublesome tenants within 30 days.
Under the proposed ordinance, Covington also would have the power to revoke the certificate of occupancy for the premises in question, shut off the utilities for a year, or use any other legal remedies allowed under state law.
"The essence of the plan is good as long as there's an opportunity to cure the situation," said Dennis Shelton, past president of the Northern Kentucky Property Owners Association. The organization represents about 90 to 100 landlords in Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties. "This could be a good thing if the city gives appropriate notice to the property owner and there's an opportunity to cure the situation without just shutting them down."
Bill Schreck, director of the Louisville Department of Inspections, Permits and Licenses, said that his city has boarded up only two properties since adopting a similar ordinance more than five years ago.
"Ninety percent of the time that we send out notice of a violation, the property owner will call us up and say, `Thank you,' " Schreck said. "They'll tell us that they didn't realize criminal activity was happening on their property."
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