Harvey J Graff

Part Two

The far greatest numbers of students want to do the right thing including obeying laws and respecting neighbors while also having fun and being in their early 20s. No one tells them that the University District is a residential, historical district with remaining homeowners, mainly with OSU connections. Or anything else of value.

Not OSU Student Life with its growing Off-Campus division. Their main activity is a periodic free food truck, with tiny participation, for grab-and-snacks, handing out brochures too late with out-of-date or incorrect information, and planting ridiculous, juvenile, often false slogan-bearing signs on private property without permission. They range from “Over 60,000 students from more than 90 countries live in the University District.” Wrong. “If you need to know something, ask Brutus Buckeye (cartoon character team mascot).” Huh? How? “Most OSU students don’t drive after having 5 or more drinks.” Isn’t that comforting?

On one hand, most landlords ignore (without consequences) their legal and civic duty to inform their tenants of their legal obligations and rights, let alone reasonable expectations for their conduct. Only a few do this. Some ask my household and other homeowners to review their letters and/or supplements to leases. They are rare and unusually responsible. One very large landlord thanks me for my writing about the University District and other less honest and responsible landlords.

On the other hand, OSU Student Life and Campus Safety tell students nothing about their legal rights and how to maintain them, nothing about their responsibilities. Homeowners and faculty have demanded this for decades. We do not understand this massive failure to those they are chartered and paid to assist.

Campus Safety actually tells students in their unhelpful comments on safe conduct, “the victim is never responsible for a crime.” This is factually wrong, dangerously misleading, and no comfort to a careless or careful victim of theft or assault.” The latter are far more common than either Campus Safety or the president is willing to admit—publically, that is.

Since no one else responds, especially those paid to take responsibility, I now use my knowledge and contacts with the City to assist my student neighbors. Last winter, returning home from a walk, my wife and I encountered a nearby house with water running from house to the street. We asked the student standing on the front porch what the problem was. He replied: a broken water main that left the group without hot water or water pressure. Their call to their landlord did not elicit action. Their call to the City led to a response: a repair will take place in two weeks.

Outraged, with the students’ agreement, I walked home and emailed six City staffers in several departments. The break was repaired in less than two days. This is dysfunctional, discriminatory, and failing.

A few weeks ago, I spoke to another household a few doors from my own house. Their trash bins had been perennially on the street, and they have no recycle bin. After some loud voices, one sober student explained that their landlord, the third worse of the large firms, ordered them not to put garbage bins beside the house, where they are supposed to be placed.

Confused and fearful of the landlord’s retribution, and knowing that they were not allowed to leave bins on the sidewalk, they left them in the street. At the same time, they were irritated because this filled a parking place.

Hearing this and having the students’ agreement, I contacted the head of the City’s Department of Refuge who I know and asked his advice. The same evening, he responded immediately, and the next day, he dispatched one of his team to tell the students that it was legal to place the bins safely beside their house, and then informed the landlord that they had no right to prohibit standard legal behavior.

Before my intervention as a concerned neighbor, where was any City inspection of cans long left in the street or Off-Campus Student Life. Reporting to 311 results in no action and often a false response stating that the problem is resolved when no action is taken.

Once again, the chance of having one retired professor and nearby homeowner’s attention and intervention is no substitute for functioning City and University systems. The problems are systemic and citywide. All actions must also be. But not in Columbus where departments are short-staffed, disconnected, underfunded, and generally cut off from both their public and from each other. The mayor and City Council don’t know and don’t care. Their munificent donations of public dollars go elsewhere.

As it happens, because of my individual—and increasingly collective activism on city charter reform, affordable housing, and especially educating Columbus’ poorly informed publics, I am now working with the director of the City’s Department of Refuse on plans to inform student tenants and others about the City’s recycling efforts. Contradictorily, almost all of the current student generation is committed to recycling and environmentalism, some of them passionately. Yet few landlords tell them how, nor how to deal with regularly trash pickup. Nor does Student Life.

I will review a draft letter to residents because landlords and Student Life will not cooperate in promoting cleanliness, sanitation, and especially recycling. My wife and I teach our closest neighbors about this, photocopying the color chart that we were given as new homeowners but that tenants do not receive. Given that we are only two residents in one house, we share empty space on our bins with the 8 young women who live next door. Their landlord, the second worse HomeTeam will not give them more than one trash and one recycle bin despite repeated requests. I have asked the City to create an ordinance requiring two of each bin for every 5 or more residents. Officials nod their heads, but no action follows. Only health, sanitation, welfare are at stake. (The city code actually limits residents to no more than 5 unrelated persons in a house but near automatic variances especially in the 1980s and 199-s drowned that.)

The Big Three largest landlords--NorthSteppe, HomeTeam, OSUlive, who does not have permission to use “OSU” in their name (nor do OSUapartments or OSUproperties)—do not care. Not of this fits into their nonrational profit model. That includes not only the expected excessive rents but cheating tenants on the return of their damage deposits and utility bills, and refusal to do regular upkeep according to lease or city code required repairs. Their houses are identified by broken front doors among other visible badges of dishonor.

NorthSteppe claims on OSU’s own website to be “Ohio State University Student Housing” when they are a private, legally separate for-profit enterprise. Why and how do they do that? Michael Stickney, their owner, donates at least $5 million to the public university. Ironically, he is unhappy when fellow members of his private downtown club condemn him as “a slum landlord.” He does not respond to tenants’ or neighbors’ requests or complaints.

Complaints against all three overwhelm the under-supported and understaffed OSU Student Legal Services. The courts are filled with suits. A class-action case against NorthSteppe progresses through the courts now. Five students died in 2002 in a fire that engulfed two NorthSteppe properties. The property-owners response: we provided them with a fire extinguisher.

OSU, especially its Office of Student Life, knows all this. They remain actively complicit in the violations of OSU students’ legal rights and welfare. First, they have promised me and my home owning neighbors for at least two decades that they would inform off-campus students (the majority of all students) of their responsibilities and their rights.

In all those years, nothing has been done. Copying, posting, and emailing city of Columbus laws and other much-needed and much-desired by students advice is a simple process. But too much for landlords’ donations-hungry OSU and Student Life’s 30 departments without assignment.

OSU neither advertises its inadequate Student Legal Services widely nor publicizes its weak annual survey of student renters. A few years ago, with the encouragement of both the most responsible landlords and many students, Student Life experimented with a more comprehensive and responsible survey. That effort was dropped without explanation.

After 18 years living in the University District, and 13 years as an active professor, I do not know what Student Life actually does. Both Student Life and Campus Safety do less in 2022 than they did in 2004.

The Chief and Deputy Chief of Campus Police talk to me and seek my advice. Under orders from the senior administration and with no communication or explanation, Student Life abruptly stopped seeking my advice, coming to my house with coffee, and pretending to make changes. They know well my contributions, which they sought, including my personally linking them with the City Attorney’s office. The latter continues to work with me.

Oh, yes, the manager of the Willie Young Off-Campus Student Life still owes my wife her promised gluten-free chocolate chip cookies. Her boss, an associate vice president, gladly accepted my gifts for his children, brought me morning coffee when consulting or conversing before he immediately followed orders from “on (H)igh” to go silent without one word to me. This is the OSU Way. Like the City, we know who pays the piper. It is no secret.

Student Life along with the new Provost, who also sought my advice) abandon me; their students, faculty, and staff; and the University District. I cannot understand their actions, despite my continuing efforts to do so.

I have a better idea about the CPD officers: some of whom admit to not knowing the law or the status of the residentially-zoned UD. Some of whom tell me, yes, “you are correct” but “breaking the law is ‘reasonable behavior’ on Saturdays and game days. The most honest admit that they are afraid to confront scores and hundreds of drunken 20-24 year olds and cannot secure back-up to police a predominating white middle class student population. They confirm that we were in different areas of the city--without landlords who donate to City Councilors and others in City Hall and to OSU—matters would differ dramatically.

Both drunken undergraduates and certified police offers have stared my neighbors and me in the face and told us that we should move to Upper Arlington. My complaints to CPD about this as well as officers who do not know or enforce the law attract no attention.

City Council, his “dishonor” the Mayor, and the Department of Private (aka Public) Service rule that only in the undistinguished Short North, in recent years controlled by large landlords and (re)developers, do the basics of civility and lawful behavior pertain. That means more daily policing, and regulation of scooters and parking. Only there. The rest of the city/citizens are abandoned.

Is it surprising that almost none of the recipients of my detailed requests for information and/or action, or my efforts to provide necessary information to a city government functioning on almost no expertise—and internal misadvice-do not answer but can’t bother civilly acknowledging communications from a homeowner, taxpayer, and voter, let alone a knowledgeable activist? On some days, I ask myself: is this a literacy problem? Or is it The Columbus Way? Or are they inseparable?

Note: See my continuing series of Columbus Free Press essays especially on the University District, OSU, and the City of Columbus for background, details, and references.


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University and inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies. Author of many books, he writes about a variety of contemporary and historical topics for Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, Academe Blog, Washington Monthly, Publishers Weekly, Against the Current; Columbus Free Press, and newspapers. Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies was published by Palgrave Macmillan in August. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming