CINCINNATI — Earl Starr is the first to admit he has made plenty of mistakes in his life. But when his son’s mom was diagnosed with cancer, Starr wanted to do things the right way.
He paid $8,200 for a two-family house in Evanston with money he had cashed out from a retirement plan. He could see the place needed work, he said. But he figured he could do most of it himself. The goal was for him and his son to live in half the property and to rent out the other half to generate some income.
“I figured if I didn’t have no mortgage or no rent, it would allow me to live free,” Starr said. “I could pay my gas and electric with the rent from downstairs and save a portion for my taxes. And whatever I made as a barber, I could use for whatever lifestyle we could live.”
But now Starr is wearing an electronic monitoring device on his ankle and could be sentenced to 180 days in jail next month if he can’t complete the repairs to his property that the city of Cincinnati has told him to make.
The story of how Starr ended up in criminal court over his property is unusual, experts told WCPO, but is by no means unprecedented. On May 9, in fact, the same judge presiding over Starr’s case sentenced anti-violence activist Pastor Peterson Mingo to jail time for a city building code violation. In Mingo’s case, city leaders intervened to keep him out of jail.
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But Starr, like most people, doesn’t have the connections that Mingo does.
His experience serves as a cautionary tale for anyone with limited income that is looking to renovate the aging homes located throughout the city.
“Homeowners don’t have the resources to do what they need to do, and that’s a Catch 22 for the inspector, too,” said Liz Blume, executive director of the Community Building Institute at Xavier University and former director of the city’s planning department. “If we could be thoughtful about how do we help property owners keep up their property in ways that keep them in their buildings but keep property conditions high, that’s the kind of thinking we need to come to.”
Right now all Starr can think about is what he needs to get done to stay out of jail and take care of his son.
‘A buyer-beware scenario’
The two-family at 2001 Clarion Ave. in Evanston had seen better days by the time Starr became interested in it.
The city of Cincinnati issued orders on the building in July 2014, giving its former owners a list of problems to fix. Shortly after that, though, the owners told the city they had filed for bankruptcy protection and the property was being foreclosed upon, according to Art Dahlberg, director of the city’s Buildings & Inspections Department. City officials declined an in-person interview about Starr’s case, but Dahlberg provided written responses to WCPO’s questions.
By December of that year, the building had transferred to lender Fannie Mae.
Starr became interested in the property in early 2015. His son’s mother was sick, and her health was deteriorating much more quickly than Starr expected, he said.
He asked ReMax Realtor Pamela Porter to look for properties that might sell for $10,000 or less, and she found the place on Clarion Avenue.
Porter said sellers typically disclose building-code orders to potential buyers, but banks aren’t required to make such disclosures when selling a property out of foreclosure.
“It’s a buyer-beware scenario,” Porter said.
She didn’t recall what research Starr did on the home but also didn’t remember any pending violations when Starr closed on the property in February 2015.
“He’s renovated a lot of properties, and he’s very knowledgeable about what needs to be done,” Porter said. “Actually, when we walked into this house, we were stunned as to what good condition it was in.”
City records show an inspector documented the building as vacant and in “decent shape” in January 2015 — less than a month before Starr bought it.
“Two windows are covered with boards and two downspouts are missing,” according to inspector notes dated Jan. 26 of that year. The record also said a title company was requesting a copy of current orders against the property, in advance of an expected sale.
”We looked at a lot of houses. We were trying to find that diamond in the rough,” Porter said. “We literally walked in the front door and it was like, ‘This is it.’ It was in such good condition, structurally sound, no major problems.”
Jonathan Sanders of InTitle Agency confirmed to WCPO in an email that the company obtained a list of building code violations for the property in January 2015 and wrote that InTitle “did advise Mr. Starr about violations on the property.”
Starr disputed that, however. He said he didn’t learn of the pending orders until late 2015 when he found a letter from the city in his yard.
The city issued orders to Starr in early June of that year after a routine search of property records showed that he had bought the building, Dahlberg wrote. An order to keep the building vacant was included in that notice.
The mother of Starr’s son, Zion, died less than a month after Starr bought the property, he said. Starr and his son moved into the half of the building that occupies the second and third floors, and the next few months were tumultuous, he said.
But Starr insists that when he found the letter from the city in his yard, he tried many times to call Kevin Rhodes, the inspector listed on the letter, and never got a call back. Once he finally made contact with Rhodes, Starr said, the inspector missed multiple appointments to inspect the property. That was a hardship, he said.
Dahlberg wrote, “Mr. Starr did not call inspector Rhodes until a year transpired and after the criminal complaint was filed.” Dahlberg said Rhodes “did miss an appointment due to an urgent matter” but added “Mr. Starr had a pattern of not showing up to scheduled inspections, per Mr. Rhodes.”
The city’s response listed three separate dates on which Rhodes said Starr didn’t show up for inspections. Rhodes also said that Starr left him four voice mail messages after Rhodes missed an inspection “due to an unexpected emergency meeting” but Starr never left a phone number so that Rhodes could call back.
Starr disputes all of that, saying he never once missed an inspection appointment. He also contends that all the while he was working to fix up his property.
The nonprofit organization People Working Cooperatively helped make repairs to his roof and chimney, he said, and installed new smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors throughout the property. He also was supposed to get help from the Home Ownership Center of Greater Cincinnati to get new windows. But by the end of September 2016, he got a letter from the Home Ownership Center that stated his “struggles with the City of Cincinnati Building Department” could scuttle the deal. Concerned about resources, he has since started a GoFundMe page in hopes of generating more money for repairs.
Starr was so frustrated, he said, that he spoke directly with Ed Cunningham, the manager of the city’s Property Maintenance Code Enforcement Division. That conversation prompted Cunningham to write an email to the Home Ownership Center’s CEO on Starr’s behalf.
“The City presently has no intention of demolishing the property or by any means taking the property from the owner,” Cunningham wrote in an email dated Oct. 6, 2016. “If Mr. Starr is able to get windows etc. assistance, it would advance the building toward our goal of full compliance.”
‘What am I guilty of?’
Starr thought once he got his new windows and made repairs to his chimney and downspouts, he would be in the clear.
But he said it seemed like every time he went to court, the city added new violations to the list of things he needed to fix.
Dahlberg wrote that additional orders were issued in an attempt to get Starr to make the building safe for himself and his son.
“Not wishing to vacate Mr. Starr and his son unless absolutely necessary, inspectors identified hazards in the occupied portion of the house that if corrected promptly, would allow the City to rescind the vacate order on the apartment he illegally occupied,” he wrote.
Dahlberg wrote that Cunningham’s email was an attempt to help Starr get the help he needed.
“Code enforcement attempts to gain compliance voluntarily and when owners provide us a reasonable plan for compliance, will work with owners within their means provided serious hazards are abated. From the time the orders were reissued May 2015 until the criminal complaint was filed, Mr. Starr completely ignored every notice and attempt to bring the code violations to his attention and work with him,” he wrote.
Starr and city officials don’t agree on much about the way the case unfolded.
Starr said he asked repeatedly for the court to dismiss the case after providing what he considered proof that he had made the repairs in the city’s original order. But Dahlberg said the prosecutor in the case “reported that Mr. Starr was defiant with the Court and uncooperative.”
Ultimately Hamilton County Municipal Judge Bernie Bouchard found Starr guilty for failure to comply with the city’s orders and placed him on the electronic monitoring device for 90 days to complete the work.
“What am I guilty of?” Starr said later. “If I put my windows in by grant, my downspout’s been fixed, and my chimney’s been tuck-pointed. And you put me on the box because I didn’t comply with what?”
Bouchard told WCPO that he couldn’t talk about Starr’s case specifically but stressed that his goal in housing cases is for property owners “to get the permits and get it right without getting a conviction.”
“We’re trying to bend over backwards to get people to adhere to zoning codes,” said Bouchard, who took over the county housing docket in January.
“I haven’t sent anybody to jail yet for a housing code violation I don’t think,” he said in an interview several weeks before the incident with Mingo. “It’s like any other law. It’s there for the public good, and jail is there to deter.”
Getting help early
Starr knows about being locked up.
He served time in the 1990s for a robbery and then got locked up again in 2010 for selling marijuana. He said he made bad decisions and paid for his crimes. He learned how to cut hair in prison, he said, and got his barber’s license. With his record, he knew it would be hard to get any other kind of job, despite his background as a steam engineer.
Now Starr cuts hair and does odd jobs — making home repairs for other people or making deliveries on the side.
“I move people. I pick stuff up from stores,” he said. “I can make $50 a day, just from my truck.”
Starr stressed that he’s trying to do the right things in life now. He’ll be 50 this year, and he has a 9-year-old son who is counting on him.
He had a lawyer at one point to help him through his legal problems with the city. But they disagreed about how Starr should proceed, and Starr fired him.
Now that his housing code problems are a criminal matter, the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio can’t represent him, said Managing Attorney Nick DiNardo. But Legal Aid could help him find a volunteer attorney, DiNardo said, and homeowners that find themselves on the front end of having problems like this with the city should call Legal Aid for help.
“If you deal with it right away, you can prevent it from going this far usually,” DiNardo said. “Usually the building department is willing to work with low-income homeowners.”
That’s not the way Starr sees it, though. He wonders if the city is trying to get his property to make way for new economic development in Evanston. There’s a new hotel that has been proposed not far from his home, Starr said.
Dahlberg insisted that’s not the case.
“There is no code enforcement initiative to promote economic development in the area,” Dahlberg wrote. “The building code enforcement at this address began prior to Mr. Starr’s ownership (and) is not related to any economic development initiative.”
Xavier University’s Blume doesn’t know the specifics of the Starr case. But she said from her time at the city, she knows that building inspectors walk a tightrope when it comes to enforcing the city’s building codes to keep property safe for homeowners, the public and the first responders who must enter them during emergencies.
“You don’t want to reduce your expectations about standards because everybody deserves to live in a good neighborhood,” she said. “But at the same time, it would be great if there were resources.”
Change could be coming in the way the city approaches problems like Starr’s.
In the wake of Mingo’s brush with jail, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley introduced a motion calling on the administration to adopt policies to “ensure that property code enforcement be pursued with civil rather than criminal penalties, especially when owner-occupants are the defendants.”
The motion also called for the administration to “develop a proposal to help owner-occupants who are facing economic hardship.” The measure was referred to a council committee and is awaiting approval.
The question is whether such a change in city policy comes too late for Starr.
WCPO Politics and Government reporter Paula Christian contributed to this report.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.
To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.
Dan Monk covers business news for WCPO. To read more stories by Dan, go to www.wcpo.com/monk. To reach him, email [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @DanMonk9.