Destroying the physical city and the barest semblance of neighborhoods: Zoning (Un)Enforcement, Public (Private) Service, and 311 with the assistance of OSU, the City Attorney, City Council, and Mayor
Zoning sign

Part One

My focus in this essay is what I name “the broken—or the evil—triangle” of Columbus versus its residents. Let me be clear. Although many but far from all of my examples begin with my own neighborhood, the historic but City and OSU abandoned and destroyed University District, my object of scrutiny and criticism is the entire city. To a greater or lesser extent, all the issues—the crimes of commission and omission--exist throughout Columbus. If not recognizable at first or second glances, Weinland Park, Franklinton, Linden, The Hilltop, south Clintonville, the west and east sides excepting much of Victorian and German Village take their place in the puzzles of Columbus.

Indeed, my overarching argument is that recognition of the misconduct, often illegal actions of the Divisions of (Anti-)Zoning and (Anti-)Neighborhoods; Public (aka Private) Services; and the dis-connecting broken thread of 311, one of the City’s jokes on its residents, is critical to understanding Columbus’ public and private collusion and the anti-democratic administration’s priorities. (Every statement is factual and can be supported with documentary materials.)

The other parties in the active corruption and destruction of the wannabe city with no history and no identity are The Ohio State University and the invading armies of absentee landlords and developers, most of whom live outside the city and increasingly outside Ohio. HomeTeam—rivalling NorthSteppe and OSUlive for the worst of the worst—is now owned by Texans who refuse to communicate with a University District homeowner who is surrounded by their lawbreaking tenants whose criminality is supported by their local managers. (Tom Heilman, the former owner and builder of the criminal empire sold his area properties when the City briefly threatened a minor degree of regulation.)

The “Evil Broken Triangle,” moreover, is actively supported by the City Attorney’s Office including its zoning and police liaisons, Columbus Department of Police, City Council, and the mayor.

Together, their intersections provide a too often missing window on the mis-operations and misconduct of a failing, anti-people “city” that refuses to function like a city after 225 years. It is increasingly an inadequate home to 900,000 residents.

Take Anti-Zoning and Anti-Neighborhoods as a first link in the evil, broken chain of city destruction. Albeit functioning within the prison-house of a more than 100-year out-of-date City Charter and Zoning Code, at least for the last 50 years, the Division marches on wheels greased by private developers and property owners whose holdings typically exceed the limits inscribed into the City Code.

Note that this is the same Division whose failure to inspect building regularly even when requested results in regular collapses resulting in death, injury, lack of homes, and property damage. The City Attorney only notices this after the fact in search of some party outside public responsibility to blame. (He sues the State of Ohio, Kia, and Hyundai but refuses requests to take on AEP, Columbia Gas, and other local utilities over their extortionist price gouging to escape the vagaries of the “free market” they otherwise cherish.)

Although my direct evidence on all but automatic zoning variances to certain kinds of parties for decades is primarily for the University District, the same patterns are apparent elsewhere. Franklinton (about which I have written here), Weinland Park, and Clintonville stand out. Research would document other areas. Of course, the City does none. Laws restricting the number of properties that any one owner can hold in a residential area as well as the uses of  properties were either or both waived and/or ignored.

Patterns of abuse of the law are unmistakable. The profiteers and profiters are well known. In a column published here on April 1, 2023, April Fool’s Day, I called for reparations for the destruction of a once vital, attractive, historic area. I do not hold my breath for a  response. (See my “A call for reparations from the City of Columbus, the large corporate landlords, and The Ohio State University for the destruction of neighborhoods with a focus on the University District,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Apr. 1, 2023

For most of its history, the UD was a settled ongoing residential area of homeowners, OSU students, and others. OSU had no dormitories until after World War II and the GI Bill. My students documented this in primary source research. (See Ellen Manovich, “Time and Change  Will Sure Show’: Contested Urban Development in Ohio State’s University District, 1920—2015,” Journal of Social History, 51 (2018), 1069-1099)

The pattern began to crack in the 1970s, accelerating through the present. Imagine a University District without NorthSteppe, HomeTeam, OSUlive, Buckeye Realty, Pella, FirstPlace, and so many more. By the letter of the law, any property owner with more than five properties and any dwelling with more than five unrelated residents is illegal. Today, the developers persuade private over public City Council to revise the Zoning Code to make it easier for them to evade its present weak strictures. In Columbus Way-speak, Rob Dorans contradictorily dubs this “Zone In,” when he means “Zone Out, or Zone Up.” (See my “Rob Dorans and the real Columbus ‘crew’ vs. the city of Columbus, again,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Apr. 8, 2023 Dorans and his office did not respond to the copy I sent directly to them, asking for discussion.)

The Columbus City Schools added to the accelerating decline when it closed the well-performing Indianola Elementary School. CPD officers and their chiefs have never known what to do with the UD (many think it is “campus;” some do not think that adults should live here) and student lawbreakers. By and large, they choose NOT to enforce the law. They receive no direction. Many do not know the law.

OSU only pretends to offer any security in the area. What exists amounts mainly to bad slogans. Both CPD and Campus Safety are less present than ever before. CPD-OSU Joint Patrols and Block Watches are strolling slogans almost never seen. When visible, they enforce no laws. The heads of Campus Safety are unable to explain just what the Joint Patrols actually do. Kristina Johnson departed without any movement on her slogans about devoting an extra $10 million per year to campus-area safety. Her portable lamp posts did more harm than good.

Of course, this is the same OSU that accepts millions of dollars in donations from the most lawbreaking landlords and will not warn its students against them. Student Life, off- and on-campus, has no interest in real student lives.

OSU’s Campus Partners for (Anti-) Community Development loses millions of dollars and destroys the campus environment and character. Despite many pleas to launch UD initiatives, Campus Partners refuses to cooperate with the UD in any meaningful and sustained way.

I will write soon about the words of many CPD officers on the beat to me. They testify that they are not enforcing many laws because they are certain that they lack the support of the courts, the City Attorney’s Office  especially Jeff Furbee its liaison to the CPD, or the CPD administration itself. Furbee has a casual acquaintance with the law, and none with respect or civility to the public. He has been counseled about the latter.

Comments by Chief Elaine Bryant and Upper Arlington realtor-Columbus City Council chair of public safety Emmanuel Remy show no familiarity with either the city itself or officers in the field. Remy pitches slogans for strictures that will not be enforced. Like the rest of the City, neither the Chief, the realtor, or mayor understands that effective policy is rooted in knowledge, explicit policies with programs, timetables, budgets, and regular assessments. That is never the Columbus Way.

In my almost 20 years of residence in a 110-year-old house 10 minutes’ walk from my former campus office, decline is steady and accelerating rapidly especially since 2021.

(Anti-)Zoning and (Anti-)Enforcement, under its current director Scott Messer, leads the illegal secret collusion for an unannounced but documented and confirmed policy of nonenforcement of basic elements of the City Code at least in the University District. Not surprisingly, Messer commutes to work from Westerville where such problems do not exist.

The contradictions are countless. Assistant City Attorney Steve Dunbar along with Messer were assigned by City Attorney Zach Klein to respond to worsening problems in the UD after my urgent request to Klein in Autumn 2021. With then OSU President Johnson making matters worse by gross exaggeration of crimes, Klein delegated responsibility for coordinated actions with OSU and some but not all landlords.

I personally introduced Dunbar to OSU Associate VP for Student Life T.J. Logan (one of few among the 11 who have a published job description) over coffee in my living room in January 2022. I prepared an agenda, although I am not on OSU or City payrolls.

Little did I then know that that was the beginning of the end of City responsibility and joint City-OSU commitment to the crime of refusing to enforce the law—not even in response to formal documented complaints. This constitutes the City’s, in collusion with OSU’s and non-Columbus resident landlords’, denial of the legal and civil rights of all who live here, homeowners and tenants alike. OSU continues to act against the interests of its students, many retired and present faculty and staff, and its neighbors.

Not surprisingly in retrospect, I was excluded from the ongoing series of meetings on campus among Dunbar, Messer or his inspectors, OSU officials, many absentee landlords, and on occasion the purposeless muddled joint City-OSU PR outfit the so-called UDO or University District Organization of 16 supposed “neighborhoods,” many of which are not in the University District and are not “neighborhoods” by any definition.

As far as I can tell, the UDO has little concern with the University District itself and actively supports the defacement of public property. Its director Nora Gerber did not know the boundaries of the UD itself or its history. Her organization’s lack of purpose parallels that of the City’s Neighborhood office. When I asked its head Stanley Gates to define its charge, he responded: “we have meetings.” His outfit, he states, “is small but mighty.” But he refuses to meet with me or cite any concrete activities.

The downhill path is clear. Almost certainly under orders from the former OSU president’s office, without explanation Logan and the head of the Willie Young Off-Campus Office Dilna Cama ceased all communication with me in April 2022. They left more unmet promises that sit gathering dust than I can count. I add them to the previous promises that Student Life, on- and off-campus, has made to me and my neighbors since 2004. They are paid by the piper: serving the interests of the large absentee landlords who contribute millions of dollars, not their tuition paying students or homeowners, most of whom with OSU connections.

Almost 20 years of promises to put all relevant Columbus laws and students’ own legal rights and responsibilities prominently on their illegible website results in nothing, In fact, less today than in recent years. There is still no description of the University District itself as an off-campus, historic, residentially zoned district in which non-students, longtime homeowners, OSU faculty and staff, and retirees live. Students are very surprised to learn this. Many welcome relationships with older, settled neighbors. But OSU as an institution does not.

The website, maintained by interns and work study students, not full-time professionals, is a mess. Internal conflicts and inconsistencies abound. More effort is spent in disclaiming any responsibilities than in guiding students. Rather than basic information on rights and responsibilities, students are referred to the underfunded, understaffed, and inadequate Student Legal Services.

The lack of guidance about law-breaking landlords who cheat student tenants—including those currently in court—is unconscionable. But those are among the largest donors. Students’ and neighbors’ interests be damned. Nowhere does OSU inform students or their lease-signing parents that OSUlive, OSUproperties, and OSUapartments have no relationship with the university and no permission to use “OSU.” That is another offense.

Rare food trucks where students grab and go free snacks (and trash sidewalks and yards) replace weekend patrols and full-time attended hotlines. Student Life has nothing to say about old dormitory towers calling down, widespread rape and nudity in campus housing, and the exodus of second year students as a direct result. Promises of initiating a four-year curriculum in citizenship are forgotten. Academic and student lives are rigidly segregated.

As far as I can tell, beyond juvenile slogans about cartoonish Brutus Buckeye, Off-Campus Student Life has no interest in either off-campus or living students. Do its paid directors move beyond the inappropriate Willie Young memorial wooden bench on the lawn of what was once Knight House, headquarters of the former Humanities Institute?

Student Life along with many absentee landlords is an active party to the agreements that developed between Spring 2022 and the end of that year not to enforce significant parts of the Zoning Code that are most offensive and problematic to neighbors.

For example, in September, October, and November 2022 Zoning (Anti)Enforcement’s “Gang of Four” as I named them: assistant director Celebreeze who has no qualifications for his position other than political pedigree and a well-earned City Hall reputation for rudeness, Truesdell, and supposedly in the field Hedrick and Huggins, regularly deny my documented reports of Zoning violations despite the actual letter of the law and the visibility of the offenses from the sidewalk.

None of them know the law, seem to have acceptable eyesight, respect taxpayers, or conduct themselves with civility. Celebreeze can’t keep either addresses or his own actions clear from hour to hour. All repeatedly contradict themselves. Of course, the City rejected my complaints about their actions and inactions.

At that time, Director Messer had sufficient responsibility and concern to overrule “the gang.” He stopped short of meeting my requests for apologies.

By the end of 2022, the rate of denials of reports—especially for illegal furniture, trash and solid waste, and flammable upholstered furniture—students have died in fires—reached almost 100 percent. The relevant sections of the City Code are 3332.289, 3345.165, 3375.15, 3363.13, and 707.02 (among others).

In addition and regularly reported are stone retaining walls falling down, broken front doors and windows, sagging roofs, broken sidewalks, and multiple signs on dwellings. All are violations of the law. None are petty. Some reports are sent to Public (aka Private) Services where they linger for years with no reports or updates. The “Gang of Four” actually deny the clear wording of the laws. Private Services is committed to profiteering, not serving the publics of Columbus.

At my urging, Messer met me at my home in February 2023. We spent an hour walking the neighborhood. In person, he agreed with every violation I identified. He promised action.

That never came and will not until his Division and the City Attorney return to legal conduct. I note that both Messer and Dunbar claim to have law degrees.

When I asked after six weeks, why was there no action, Messer impersonally and distancingly shifted from Harvey to Mr. or Dr. Graff. With Dunbar’s concurrence, he dishonestly accused me of expecting each and every little complaint to be resolved. I did not, and would not state that, and they know that well. He was rude, offensive, and uncivil. This was a near complete reversal of behavior and attitude. Neither replies to any further communications.

Shortly after the near complete dismissal of all reports of violations, and Messer’s and Dunbar’s dishonest and disrespectful reversals, I read in the OSU student The Lantern on May 3, 2023, a statement from Code Enforcement Inspector Jeremiah Evans. He commented that in the University District two years ago, officers reported hundreds of city code violations. “Three months ago, they only found 11.”

The key word is not “found,” but reported as violations. As an almost 20-year resident, I know with certainty that the frequency and volume of violations has not declined. It has almost certainly increased. I, for one, along with my neighbors, have been making more reports.

Messer and Dunbar, presumably with Zach Klein’s and perhaps City Council’s knowledge, in secret illegal collusion with OSU and the landlords, ordered the inspectors not to enforce the city’s laws. In addition to the timing, the patterns of rejections, and the almost complete cessation of responses to complaints, both Inspectors X and Y confirm this to me by telephone and in person. They are ordered not to enforce the laws. (I am sharing names only with DOJ, State AG’s Office, and private attorney for now.)

I immediately wrote to Messer and Dunbar in early May, demanding a detailed explanation. After two and one-half months, neither acknowledges receipt nor provides any form of an answer. Zach Klein’s office actually insultingly tells me to report this to 311. Given the overwhelming evidence, silence is complicity. Neither OSU nor UDO will respond to my questions. This is not a matter of chance or coincidence.

I invite readers to drive by 237 E. 18th Avenue, a HomeTeam property reported to 311 and to HomeTeam multiple times. It is only one but a telling example. The lawn is filled with illegal furniture and other objects, signs, flammable furniture, and illegal wiring. Neither the City nor HomeTeam is able to see or respond legally to a very high-risk situation. It is two blocks from my house and 100s of other persons, some quite elderly and limited in mobility.

As in many other areas led by the Department of Police, the City of Columbus is knowingly and purposefully violating its own laws in support of the private interests mainly of property owners who do not live in the city or even Ohio. That action is an illegal violation of the rights of all residents. I have asked both the federal Department of Justice and the State Attorney General to investigate. (See my “The City that breaks its laws has a police force that refuses to enforce the city’s laws: The Columbus Way, Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 13, 2022 ; and “The City that breaks its laws has a police force that refuses to enforce the city’s laws: The   Columbus Way, Part Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 16, 2022  )

But the City’s and OSU’s illegalities also have a predictable multiplying impact. The most law-violating landlords, led by NorthSteppe and HomeTeam—both currently in the courts—along with OSUlive, Buckeye Realty, and FirstPlace are even more lax in any efforts to enforce their tenants’ and their own legal responsibilities. They irresponsibly and uncivilly ignore requests for action from homeowning, taxpaying, voting, often senior citizen neighbors.

Out-of-state HomeTeam’s new property manager Jeff Willis lacks honesty, respect, and civility. On one hand, he feigns that HomeTeam has changed and asks my help with City Code issues. Then almost immediately, he actively worsens relations, which then collapsed. Like an errant child, he attempts to turn every point on its head and lies uncontrollably. He goes out of his way to insult and disrespect me without cause.

Almost every HomeTeam house in my area has multiple visible violations. That doesn’t matter to Willis or his employers or the City of Columbus’ employees paid by our taxes. OSU lists all their properties on its website without qualifications.

HomeTeam’s contract lawn crew parks illegally and has threatened me when I ask them to obey the law. When I called HomeTeam’s office and asked to speak to someone in charge, I was told summarily: have your attorney contact ours.

Formerly responsible and respectful smaller landlords in my area have actively worsened responses and actions in recent months. They know the score; where their bread is buttered—with buckeyes no doubt. Leading them is Jonathan Cope who formerly lived on East Frambes Ave. He now lives in Powell but owns at least three houses on his old street. Not only is he nonresponsive to his tenants’ legal violations, but he also tolerates and perhaps encourages them.

Cope now has his debt collector lawyer in Powell, named Lackey, forbid me from “entering” one property when I never did so. Lackey is disrespectful, and struggles with reading, writing, and the law. I am considering filing complaints to bar association ethics committees against both of them for dishonesty, harassment, and illegal actions.

Also recently transformed is Nick NiCastro who asked my wife and I to assist him  in constructing letters to his tenants, but now tolerates illegal actions by tenants and no longer responds to communications.

Rather dramatically, Matt and Reed Cooper, who cannot decide if they want to cooperate with concerned neighbors or insult us, stopped communicating immediately after asking me to help them with informing their tenants about relevant zoning codes. They lie repeatedly. Younger brother Reed, who will not walk one-half block from his rental houses closest to my home to speak with me in person, misreads clear emails and then accuses me of lying when he himself does so.

At present, it is now easier and more productive to converse, explain the situation and the relevant laws, and cooperate with 20–26-year-old student tenants than with “adult” property owners, none of whom live in Columbus, and who occasionally state that they themselves would never live in the areas that they purchase properties to rent. If not a civil or criminal offense, that is a crime against society.

I ask readers to warn anyone with OSU students in their families or acquaintance with them about these and other absentee landlords.

At present, I am aware of only one large property owner who conducts his business honestly and works cooperatively with tenants and neighbors regularly. That is George Kanellopoulos of OSUproperties. When I contacted his recently to deal with violations at a property with a sign “OSUproperties managed by A & R Managers,” George told me that a number of landlords illegally appropriate “OSUproperties” into their formal names in order to capitalize on the real OSUproperties hard-owned reputation. OSUlive is among them. Of course, I am not familiar with all smaller property owners.

Lawful and respectful neighborly behavior may occasionally conflict with the students’ social activities. But it actively contradicts their legally responsible and liable landlords’ profit-motives and business models much more. In that, they are supported by the City of Columbus—to whom they pay no taxes, at least in that form—and The Ohio State University from whom some of them claim degrees.


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, most recently he published Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming. “Reconstructing the new ‘uni-versity’ from the ashes of the ‘multi- and mega-versity’” is in progress.