Birds eye view of OSU

Note: I refer any one skeptical of what follows, including the subjects of the report, to the public record, OSU Student Legal Services, records of past and current court cases, conversations with current or recent OSU students, and to their own visual inspection of the District and the properties

Columbus, Ohio, and especially its historic, residentially-zoned University District, is a national hotspot for criminal—literally-speaking—landlords. This is widely known in City Hall and The Ohio State University, both of whom aid and abet neighborhood destruction and uncontrolled profit-taking by circumventing their own laws and guidelines. They fail to protect the lives and well-being of homeowners and students alike, allowing a large catalogue of property-owners malpractices and criminality to continue unchecked.

Too much money changes hands. Caring for the lives of its students along with home-owning, older, most often OSU-related neighbors is too much for OSU’s sprawling and disconnected Offices of Student Life or Legal Services (the one overfunded and the other underfunded), and law enforcement by the City of Columbus or the City Attorney’s office.

The problem is relatively recent, but has accelerated out of control, legally, ethically, morally. Since the university’s creation in 1870, the greatest number of its students lived in the University District. OSU had no dormitories until after World War II and the GI Bill’s stimulus to expand. Before that time, unless they lived at home, students either boarded with home-owning families, many of them OSU professors and staff, often in bedrooms vacated by their children leaving home. A smaller number lived in small independent rooming houses.

According Columbus’ long out-of-date and never systematically revised—or enforced--Charter, property owners are limited legally to a small number of properties in any one area, and no more than five unrelated individuals are permitted to live in one structure. Large and multiple signs are not permitted on buildings in residential area. Upkeep of dwellings and properties is required.

The “great change” began slowly, first a trickle, in the 1950s and 1960s, accelerating like a flood in the late 1970s and especially after 2000. On one hand, OSU continued to expand in periodic spurts toward its present 65,000 on the main campus. The university never prepared adequately for this growth. It remains unprepared.

On the other and, especially in the early 21th century, various forms of common neighborhood transitions accelerated. Older homeowners moved to retirement centers or areas, or died. Especially with the Columbus City Schools closing good quality elementary schools in the middle of the UD and southern Clintonville, younger families with children moved out. More and more properties went on the market with intense competition among buyers.

More of less simultaneously, through its financial-loss leading and anti-neighborhood Campus Partners for Urban Community Development, OSU rejected professors’ who often owned homes in the UD (including me and my neighbors’) repeated proposals to purchase suitable houses for either student housing or especially the kind of “theme houses” (from pre-professional to social justice or faith, with many mutual interests in between) that prove so productive and popular on many other campuses. Instead Campus Partners led in the partial destruction of Weinland Park and High Street across from the main campus.

In at least informal mutual understandings—but quite likely financial ones--larger and larger corporate, for-profit landlords purchased more and more of the historic residentially-zoned UD. At base, this was a colossal violation of City zoning laws as outlined above.

Some of the largest property owners have donated millions of dollars to OSU and appear on university websites as “OSU Student Housing” when they are not. At least, three—OSUlive, OSUproperties, OSUapartments—use “OSU” without formal permission. Together, OSU and the three fraudulently mislead students and their families into presuming a degree at least of affiliation and/or affirmation. OSU ignores neighbors’ requests to stop this practice. Is money changing hands here too? I would be surprised if not.

Unpublicized and without explanation, for years, the City almost automatically granted zoning variances to all comers. This included new apartment buildings that violated residential district zoning code and excessive signage. The post-1970 University Area Commission and the University District Organization never said a word; their properties were sheltered geographically on Iuka Ave., the Circles, Denison Place, and so on. This deceitful process parallels the City’s continuing failure to inspect properties, sidewalks, and streets both in the UD but throughout the unrepaired, unsafe, failing Columbus, Ohio.

Almost no one today knows that there is a historic and residentially-zoned University District. The City-OSU jointly-sponsored University District Organization that comprises 13 “neighborhoods,” most of which are not actually neighborhoods, and only one of which is the UD proper, is unaware of this. So too are many City staffers and elected officials, and a great many Columbus Police officers.

The City Charter makes it clear that property owners are responsible first for the upkeep—to code requirements—of their properties. And that the City has a legal responsibility to conduct inspections. Neither is enforced despite specific reports to landlords by tenants and neighbors, or by the City. This is not a source of income for the Department of Pubic (aka Private) Service.

Students and older residents and visitor frequently trip and fall on the glaringly uninspected, illegal unrepaired sidewalks, driveways, and streets. It took my falling twice in 5 months this year to stir limited action.

On Memorial Day, I tripped on broken pavement, fell hard, broke my glasses, and fractured my right leg. (I was assisted by an OSU undergraduate junior jogging by who has become my friend).

The City had no interest—in part because I alluded to their clear legal liability and in part because enforcing such city laws is not in the financial interests of Public (aka Private) Services.  However, the unusually responsible large landlord, OSUproperties, immediately ordered its property manager to inspect and repair broken sidewalks, and his insurance company “to do the right thing” for me. They did.

In September, I tripped and fell again on another patch of broken sidewalk two blocks away on the same street. Lest readers ask: am I unstable, suffice it to say that I spent the entire previous week in Toronto walking every day. I did not stumble once. Despite having a very conservative-dominated city government, Toronto respects its publics and maintains its infrastructure.

GAS Properties was and is confused. Their manager will not tell me his last name (despite signing a settlement check). He made and broke verbal commitments. He actually “ordered” me not to walk on his property’s sidewalk (which he cannot do legally) but immediately corrected himself: “oh, the sidewalk across the street is our’s too.” I dealt with an ignorant insurance agent and attorney.

GAS has repaired part but not the entire broken sidewalk, and not its even more severely broken sidewalks across the street. I have accepted an insufficient settlement to end my dealings with them.

The City actually sent out an inspector once at my demand. He confirmed my complaint. The City hints that, perhaps, they will institute more regular inspections (which they are required legally to do). I am waiting to see. But I learned, to my amazement, in this process, that sidewalks do not fall under Zoning but under Public (aka Private) Service as “right of way.”

This makes no sense. They are primarily the responsibility of the private property owner, unlike streets and cross-walks. Scooters and bicycles are banned from them. Of course, neither these bans nor sidewalk requirements is enforced. Regardless, sidewalks are not “right of way.” No one in City Hall can explain this to me. This is the Columbus Way.

The University District is pock-marked by its big three, in practice, “criminal enterprise” landlords. In descending order of tenants’ complaints to their landlords, OSU Student Legal Services and Student Life, threatening law suits, and filing law suits, they are NorthSteppe, owned by Michael Stickney who has donated at least $5 million to OSU and whose tenants have died in fires in his houses; HomeTeam; and OSUlive. Curious readers may search online for complaints and patterns over time.

OSU Student Life shares none of this directly with students. Neither does it publicize its weak annual survey of off-campus rental property tenants. The responsible landlords ask for stronger surveys with wider circulation. They are ignored.

The “Big Bad Three” cater to out-of-state students looking for housing late; and to fraternity members escaping the modest restrictions on their fraternity houses because of injurious and life-threatening hazing and rapes. A small percentage of all students, these law-breakers want to party more wildly and recklessly. Many of the first group know what they are getting. They make lists of needed repairs and submit requests week after week. My neighbors tell me tale after tale. One house spent much of last year with water in its basement. The landlord finally repaired after months of complaints.

Landlords’ responses to reporters, police, neighbors, and in courtrooms make it clear that these large profitable enterprises’ owners regard themselves as outside the law. My next-door neighbor and I saw this personally with respect to NorthSteppe in Franklin County court with a magistrate who denied us the hearing for which we paid in advance and refused to allow us to file an objection with paying yet another fee for services never rendered.

Outright denial competes with “whataboutism” and lawyers’ claims that “I am the only attorney in the room” while sitting beside his own associate and declarations that “we are going to win this case.” Ignoring complaints regardless of documentation and clear patterns alternates with bullying both written and oral. It is part of their “business” and “profit model.” It works most of the time.

HomeTeam Realty properties are identifiable by broken front doors, windows, and often doorbells as well as insufficient garbage bins for the number of residents. As a household of two, my wife and I share extra space in our bins with the eight young women who live next door.

We also explained Columbus recycling to them and other student neighbors. Neither landlords nor OSU do this. The head of the City’s Department of Refuse asks my help in reaching students about recycling. Ironically, their generation is almost completely committed to this. Sadly, no one in responsibility tells them what, when, or how. That, in my view, should be a crime against our vanishing environment.

Note: After this drafting the eight college seniors went on a spree of violating agreements and laws. In response to our request to reestablish cooperative relationships, they ended all communications.

HomeTeam’s campus properties have just been sold to another company who declares its intention to change its business practice, relationships, and images. I am not optimistic. On my morning walk recently, I asked two HomeTeam blue collar worker to move their beat-up pickup truck from the sidewalk. In response, they swore uncontrollably at me. And after almost one month, HomeTeam has not yet provided the second garbage and recycle bins promised to the eight tenants who live next door in a house that HomeTeam purchased on false pretenses about a decade ago.

Some landlords also have illegal multiple signage. They refuse both tenants’ and neighbors’ requests and complaints. They know that the relatively “captive” student population comes and goes. They do not recognize the presence or the legal rights of older, long-time homeowners, and certainly not the rights of their paying tenants and their parents.

They also deceive homeowners who must sell quickly. This happened with the house next door when space in a retirement community became available earlier than the more than 40-year homeowner and retired professor and his wife expected. They were told a pack of lies about who would occupy the house and when. Another aspect of the “business model.”

Its competitor’s-- tenant-harassing and unresponsive to either neighbors or the City, OSUlive--properties are in even greater disrepair. Look at them from the sidewalk or street. There are safety issues embedded in their code violations. OSUlive’s properties are also identifiable by the 3-4 signs on houses or planted in yards, and large banners on four-plexes and apartment buildings, both violations of zoning codes.

The worst—and the leader in complaints, lawsuits, and local lore is NorthSteppe, owned by Michael Stickney. Two sides of his “business model” appear in his multiple million donation to OSU (of which he is not a graduate)—and who knows who else in the City of Columbus, and the fact that he was condemned loudly in his downtown private luncheon club by a fellow member as a “slum landlord.”

Stickney neither enforces the terms of his leases nor respects his own or his tenants’ legal responsibilities. He does not repair his properties. He does not accept the law or his legal liabilities. He ignores regular warnings from the police, trash collection, and zoning enforcement. He dismisses the requests and complaints of the neighbors. It is too profitable, and no doubt too easy, to conduct business like that.

These three, among others, share other aspects of their “business” and “profit models.” Complaints, reports in print, patterns of law suits, and a class-action case against NorthSteppe moving through the courts all confirm this: They systematically cheat their tenants.

This makes little sense given their high rents and failure to make repairs. Clearly, rationality or logic, or morality or ethics shed no light on illegal actions or certain “models” of conduct.

As a practice, they do not return damage deposits despite not making necessary repairs. They respond to protesting students and their families that visible damages are their responsibility despite the fact—sometimes with photographic evidence—that the damage preceded their tenancy. When students and families protest, the landlords alternatively ignore them or bully them. They know well that their victims of their criminal actions are very eager to see the last of them.

If this were not enough, these landlords also cheat on tenants’ utility bills. They overcharge and refuse to document their charges. They withdraw the amounts of the false charges from deposits.

These landlords, who would not exist if the actual laws were honored, don’t care. The City doesn’t care. OSU won’t warn its tens of thousands of off-campus students. Money changes hands. Only nearby homeowners and some tenants file complaints. We are almost never heard.

My neighbors and I have urged OSU Student Life to post relevant City laws along with statements of students’, especially off-campus students’, rights and responsibilities prominently. Despite at least two decades of promises, this does not occur.

Most students—I speak to many in my neighborhood—want to know both their responsibilities and their rights. The far greatest number want to do the right thing. They are young adults who know they are still maturing. They welcome responsible help.

Astonishingly, neither OSU nor the landlords tell them basic facts. It is not in their business or institutional interests, it appears. Is that itself not a crime, ethically if not narrowly legally?

Aside from the class action suit now in the courts against NorthSteppe, there are no legal or economic consequences for these faulty operations. No one defends the itinerant easily-victimized student tenants who cannot afford lawyers. My own requests for student representation and education, with supporting evidence, to Columbus Dispatch and OSU student-written The Lantern, as well as to the City Attorney, and of course OSU Student Life, are ignored.

The 40-odd years of accelerating neighborhood decline and loss prompt no collective or institutional response. The University Area Commission and University District Organization (which spans far beyond the actual University District), as in most things not in their most narrow self-interest, are conspicuously absent.

Home-owning, older neighbors often affiliated with or retired from OSU take the place—incompletely and randomly—of City inspectors, OSU Student Life and under-staffed and under-funded Student Legal Services, and landlord’s responsibility.

With the last half-year, I personally contacted relevant City services to have nearby student tenants’ broken city water main repaired within two days of learning about the problem. Their landlord, Jonathan Cope, was content to have them wait two weeks without water pressure or hot water once he learned that his own plumber could not do the repair work on a city line. He promoted unhealthy conditions for which his tenants paid premium prices. His story changes with the days of the week.

I also helped another group of that landlord’s, who used to live on that block before moving his young family in the early 2000s and becoming a landlord, tenants secure their City-required recycle bin. His comment, “oh, I didn’t know.” He no longer responds to my requests to have his tenants—or himself—meet City codes or respect the very neighbors whose help they welcomed just a year ago.

More recently, Cope’s tenants commence a campaign of harassment, which he endorses by having his Powell, not Columbus-based, debt-collector/attorney named Lackey, express mail me a brief letter ordering me to stop “repeat[ed . . .] trespass[…] on the Property and “expressly prohibit[… me] from entering the Property for any reason.”

Lackey provides no evidence, does not have his “warning” notarized or filed, nor secures physical proof of my receipt. The Ohio Code passage he cites is irrelevant to the issue. This is bullying, not practicing law. It is an illegal mode of conduct but a not unusual “business practice.”

I have not “entered the Property.” I had tenants’ permission to stand on their walk or porch when speaking to them. Once I left a message in their mailbox. There is no “repeated […] trespass[…].”

Lackey has written me again after I knocked on the eight young women’s front door—which CPD confirms I have the legal right to do—after their deposited their scooter on my lawn.

I am filing a complaint with the Columbus Bar about harassment, threatening, and intimidation regarding Lackey and Cope. This is how they deal with their student tenants and others.

In another example, after learning about the confusion and contradictions sowed by a nearby OSUlive tenants’ lease that explicitly forbid them from placing their garbage bins exactly where the law specifies, I contacted the City Department of Refuse who explained the tenants’ rights and responsibilities to them. They then firmly informed the landlord of the facts on the ground. This department is exceptional. It is almost alone among its City peers in its commitment to genuine public service.

Can the spiral of destruction, corruption, collusion, and criminality be stopped or at least slowed? I don’t know. But there is no reason for optimism.

If the City, OSU, the “neighborhood” associations, and not least the student tenants themselves would step forward, more or less together, the cages might rattle.

Of course, the students need the resources of the others. Who will provide them? Who will lead? We know who will not. That, of course, is the Columbus and OSU Way.


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.