MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT City to study workings of housing court

Cost is one of the key questions that will be discussed.
YOUNGSTOWN -- City officials are headed to Cleveland this week to see how a housing court works and whether one can be started here.
Among those traveling to Cleveland on Friday is Judge Robert Milich of Youngstown Municipal Court, who has championed the housing court as a way to develop a comprehensive, flexible and a speedy response to address housing complaints and violations of city housing laws.
"We've been talking about something like this for 20 years," the judge said. "It will take a concerted effort to bring this [housing court] together. We must have council, the landlords' association and the courts all working as one."
Councilwoman Carol Rimedio-Righetti also is scheduled to make the trip and will keep city council apprised of the project, he said. The judge and councilwoman presented an overview of the housing court proposal to council's Finance Committee in December.
Right now, the judge said all cases involving housing codes are put in with other criminal complaints before the court. A separate docket for housing cases would be the way to go, he said.
"A lot of what we [the courts] do is social work, and there are a lot of social issues involved in why people can't keep up their homes and property," the judge said. A separate court and docket also could speed resolutions since criminal cases often take priority.
Existing housing courts
Judge Raymond Pianka, presiding and administrative judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court's housing division, extended the invitation to city officials to observe his court.
Judge Pianka was a Cleveland councilman for 10 years and fully understands housing problems, Judge Milich said.
Similar housing courts are in Columbus, Toledo, Dayton and Cincinnati, the judge said.
A key question will be cost, Judge Milich said, because "resources are always a problem from the bottom up."
The judge said there also must be properly trained personnel to handle the housing issues, and "there must be a comprehensive program to assist people with code compliance," such as education, financial assistance and counseling if the program is to succeed.
The Cleveland trip will provide Youngstown officials with an overview to show, for instance, how many inspectors are used and how the Cleveland court's docket works, the judge said.
Judge Milich said he would handle the housing court docket here if it becomes a reality.
The judge said the time has come to take a more creative approach to dealing with housing code enforcement, including finding ways to help people maintain their properties.
"Putting people in jail should be our last resort," he said.
A tentative plan, he said, would be for the city to get a good inventory of the city's worst housing areas and focus on them.
A housing court and strengthened housing codes also were included in the proposed 2010 action plan unveiled to the public last month.
Active response
According to the Cleveland Municipal Court Web site, the municipal court's housing division was created in 1980 in response to the deteriorated housing stock within the city's neighborhoods.
Judge Pianka started a Selective Intervention Program in July 1998 as an alternative resolution for homeowners, many of whom are poor and elderly defendants who come before the court.
Participants who successfully complete the program have their cases dismissed by the housing court, avoid a criminal conviction, and pay a minimal fee to offset court costs.
Judge Pianka also developed the Landlord Seminar Workshop, conducted in partnership with the Northeast Ohio Apartment Association, which is a series of forums to educate landlords and tenants on their rights and responsibilities, the Web site says.

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