Harvey J Graff

Part Three (of Four)

Residents’ lack of basic rights (cont’d.)

Adequate city services

I can call attention to only a selection of the principal lost or stolen rights. These include the right to maintain on a legal and customary basis well-established, recognized, and historic neighborhoods. This right embraces the maintenance of the legal residential status of each property as well as the compacts that govern property transfers and illegal amassing of collections of hundreds of rental properties in an area that is zoned as residential. It also includes upkeep and repair of the properties. This includes contracts, public health, and public safety.

NorthSteppe’s, HomeTeam’s, and others’ houses all too often feature broken front doors, windows, and doorbells; insufficient trash containers irregularly put out or returned according to code; and broken sidewalks. Broken water and gas pipes are common, as well as appliances. Many yards are strewn with trash; upholstered furniture; drinking game paraphernalia; portable toilets, tents, shelters, and other structures; open fires; and large quantities of alcohol provided free—all without required permits.

A personal note: On the last Monday in May, out for my daily walk, I tripped and fell on a broken sidewalk on Indianola Avenue less than two blocks from my house. I landed very hard on my right knee and fractured the tibia under the knee. A passing motorist stopped until I was able to stand up. An undergraduate jogging by stopped, located my glasses, and chatted while I regained my composure. Upon notification, the large landlord for the property instructed his insurance company to contact me. The City of Columbus sent me a claims form and multiple emails with vague statements describing their limited liability despite the near total absence of zoning inspection or enforcement.

Illegal and environmentally damaging graffiti and signage—from obscene student banners like “Fuck the [University of Oregon] Ducks” or “Maryland girls have crabs”— join huge “For Rent” and owner-announcing banners. They fill sidewalks, sides of houses, and front porches. Police do not know what to do about them, and they rank low on the few zoning inspectors’ to-do lists.

When asked by neighbors and CPD, both tenants and property owners alternatively feign ignorance about their own legal responsibilities, or owners hold their tenants responsible without ever explaining in writing or orally their responsibilities to them. Few other than home-owning neighbors express concerns about quality of life or the environment.

The failings of property owners, managers, and tenants, and absence of regular or required inspection—each of whom carries legal responsibilities—damage the neighborhoods for all residents and for the entire city community. The human and physical damages are incalculable.

Many landlords deny that the law applies to them. NorthSteppe’s unethical attorney Douglas Graff (no relation) makes a fool of himself and his client in meditation, courtrooms, and demands for dismissal of sound legal suits. The Graff and McGovern law firm and NorthSteppe owner Michael Stickney (called loudly “a slum landlord” in his members’ only Columbus Club) repeat these disgraceful lies to neighbors, Columbus’ rare inspectors and enforcers, the City, OSU, the courts, and their tenants.

They do not inform tenants of their legal rights and landlords’/property managers’ obligations, not even trash pickup days and times, and the do’s and don’ts of recycling. Despite decades of promises to University District long-time homeowners and off-campus students, OSU’s Office of Student Life does not carry out the simplest tasks of providing basic civic information including a grounding in students’ rights, legal obligations, and responsibilities. The greatest number of students want that information.

On party weekends, among loud drunken students, public urination competes with ear-shattering music, knocking over and emptying trash containers onto sidewalks and streets, removing parts of stone retaining walls, and breaking off outside rearview mirrors on parked vehicles. We did not do this when I was an undergraduate. Neither CPD nor the largely fictitious OSU Buckeye Block Watch or Campus Safety is visible or effective.

Both tenants and neighbors in actual practice lack the right to respond to these violations of the law and basic human civilities. Landlords rarely respond to student complaints or appeals, even when communicated by complaints to OSU Student Legal Aid or formal lawsuits. OSU Student Legal Aid has a backlog of hundreds of complaints that overwhelm its insufficient staff and resources.

More generally, city services are almost nonexistent and dysfunctional. Columbus 311, the principal avenue for reporting real and suspected code and other violations, only serves the public from 8 AM Monday through 5 PM Friday. There is no response outside those hours, despite the fact that Columbus Police will not respond to certain complaints, including parking violations, without a referral from 311. Legitimate problems do not adhere to 311’s part-time schedule.

A part-time office for full-time problems is one contradiction of residents’ rights and welfare. A second is that 400-600 daily reports by telephone, email, and website constantly overwhelm 311’s much-too-small staff of fewer than 20 employees. They are so inadequately prepared to meet their essential responsibilities that the supervisor telephoned me to explain. This is not the service she is committed to provide. She cares. But department heads, Councilors, and mayor apparently do not.

The complaints of violations that 311 receives are referred irregularly and incompletely to zoning inspectors and enforcers. Only seven serve a city of almost one million people. They simply cannot do their jobs despite the professional commitment of many staff and department heads. Unfortunately, not all of them know the laws.

My experiences just this year include connecting those responsible for servicing green trash bins and blue recycling containers to each other. In separate departments, they had never been in contact.

The same story played out with solid waste collection enforcement and animal/pest control, who also had not communicated with each other. In that discovery, my neighbor, who is an M.D., was told that evidence of loose animals and rodents spreading Covid is not a concern of animal/pest control in Columbus’ ravines and streets.

The City’s most recent response to the collapse of 311 is to hire a private company to design a fancier website! Reorganizing and dramatically expanding both 311 and inspection/enforcement to serve the city are apparently not seriously considered by City Council or the mayor. The new website functions poorly or not at all. I no longer make 311 reports. It is a pointless waste of time.

When serious problems in my neighborhood come to my attention, I personally act. This occurred recently when a city water main serving a house rented to students broke and the students were told by the City that repair will not take place for at least two weeks (and the landlord showed no interest). After asking the students about water gushing down their elevated front lawn, I directly emailed a half-dozen city employees in several departments with whom I am acquainted. The water main was repaired within two days. (The sidewalk repair remains incomplete almost six weeks later.)

This is a systems and systemic failure, not an isolated instance. City employees in the field know the collapse of services intimately. But department heads, Councilors, and mayor show neither awareness nor public concern.

Cleanliness, sanitation, and public health

Columbus is a filthy, unsanitary, unhealthy, and dangerous city. Visitors, tourists, and newcomers who explore the city testify to this observation. Of course, the degree of dirt and refuse, and risk of ill-health and lack of safety vary from area to area, sometimes within a few blocks, as does physical safety from crime and shootings.

Among the major facts are the racial, social class, and geographic differences in life expectancy; incidences of major diseases; rates of failed pregnancies, maternal mortality, infant mortality, and below-average weight of infants and children; access to affordable health care including regular vaccinations, and the in past two years Covid inoculations.

The city’s geography is an uneven map of food and health care deserts. Zoning inspectors’ approval for developers to demolish strips of retail business for replacement by much larger, private developments exacerbates these crisis conditions.

All of Columbus’ major medical centers from Ohio State Wexner Medical Center to OhioHealth and scandal-plagued Mt. Carmel are for-profit, not public-health-oriented corporations. The failing director of Ohio’s inadequate Department of Health was an OhioHealth administrator, not a public health or active medical practitioner.

The Columbus Department of Public Health joins the chorus of leading by slogans rather than action. Its director stands should-to-shoulder with the mayor in declaring gun violence “a public health crisis,” while neither enunciates a comprehensive program. During the worst outbreaks of the pandemic, residents’ recourse to violations of mask mandates and crowd limits was to call DPH, not the police. Of course, they were not open for action from end of business Friday to Monday mornings, when the major needs occurred. And Public Health never took note of the dramatic decline in Covid testing when they recommended changes in city mitigation policies.

Here too lies the Columbus Way and the city’s truly exceptional identity. This is why Columbus ranks among the highest in the state and the nation in rates of homicide by guns and killings by police, especially of young black people.

The University District, the area I know best, is composed of well-built, long-standing, formerly well-maintained domestic structures. Despite its homeowners’ and OSU student renters’ primarily middle-class composition, it is now a physical landscape of filth.

With no guidance from landlords, property managers, or OSU, trash bins are put out too late if at all and left on streets and sidewalks against code for days, weeks, and months after their legal limits.

I have stopped reporting the never-changing offenders to 311 because the chances of a response resemble snow in mid-summer. I have reported blue and green bins left on sidewalks and in streets as many as a half-dozen times each. Perhaps two or three times, an inspector appeared and then tagged or ticketed. When inspectors or enforcers come to one reported address or street corner, they never look in other directions or on adjacent blocks. This is not inspecting. It also exacerbates the flow of filth. Both property owners and student tenants only respond to enforcement of the law.

On one block on one side of my house’s corner lot, even infrequent inspection and ticketing made a difference. A more significant difference would follow from city-wide enforcement of the legal responsibilities of landlords as well as tenants. This requires sending notices of violations directly to property owners and managers, in addition to taping them on top of an errant bin.

Add to the problem: Landlords like HomeTeam only provide one regular and one recycling bin for a house occupied by  six, eight, or more students. We have requested additional bins for the eight tenants living in the single-family home next door. HomeTeam ignores us. Groups of tenants also ask to no avail. Eight young women living across the street have no recycle bin, another landlord violation.

I have asked the City Attorney’s Office to institute a new zoning requirement based jointly on requiring at least one green and one blue container for each five occupants, plus regular inspection and enforcement of the law. We await action.

My wife and I make a point of telling neighboring students the trash pickup schedule, the laws about times to put out and retrieve bins, and what goes into recycling and what does not. We also allow the eight students next door to use extra space in our containers. We are a household of two.

On all accounts, we are unusual. We seek to teach them what landlords and OSU should be doing regularly. We want a clean, sanitary, safe neighborhood. We made friends with several households. The students sharing our bins baked us brownies.

The City’s highly paid recycler Rumpke sometimes misses pickups of regular recycling, leaf bags, and special requests for large objects including furniture. When Rumpke fails to respond to a reminder, the City department scrambles in confusion.

Our house occupies a large, corner lot at the intersection of one major and one side street. It is a dump for partying and drunken OSU students. I call the perpetrators “hoodlums.” The discarded objects range from empty beer and soft drink cans and alcohol bottles to a surprising number of half-full containers; surgical masks; food containers and food; wrappers, bags, and boxes of all kinds; yard signs removed and carried several blocks; all forms of clothing; and even an electric scooter.

My urgent appeal to the City Attorney about weekend lawlessness of all kinds during last fall’s OSU football season resulted in selective Monday morning trash inspection. One morning, before I had filled the usual two or more shopping bags with student deposits, the inspectors taped a notice of violation to my front door threatening a fine of as much as $10,000 and jail time. This occurred five minutes after I spoke to them about the recurring problem and told them that I would clear the debris shortly. I objected loudly. The City canceled the violation notices but did not apologize.

Of course, the inspectors do not look at the countless yards full of beer cans and alcohol bottles within one or two blocks. A trash-free front yard on a Sunday morning is a rare sight. Some yards remain full of trash 24/7. Reports to both 311 and landlords almost never stimulate results. The days of OSU’s infrequent Student Ambassador trash pickup brigades are long gone. No standards are communicated to tenants. The result is not only illegal blight but an active public health danger in itself and in attracting potentially diseased rodents and other animals.

Unknowing students continue to wait for the “can fairies” to pick up cans they sell for recycling, claiming that by allowing strangers to trespass on their properties, they are somehow “giving to charity.” Neither OSU nor the City or CPD warns them about the dangers of illegal trespassing. For some of constant drinking and partying ranks, the collectors are an excuse for laziness, and disrespectful, unneighborly conduct. For others, it is simple, easily correctable ignorance. And in some cases, it is the lack of their own legally mandated container.

Trashing a neighborhood has many meanings. The contradictions multiply in unhealthy, unattractive, and disease-spreading Columbus.

Another small but powerful sign of City Hall’s disdain for public health is its annual (except during the pandemic) The Arnold body-building festival. Despite complaints and pleas for years about the unregulated use of illegal steroids at such events, and their being banned at such “competitions” elsewhere in the nation and entirely in some states, Columbus’ present mayor and his predecessor remain committed to what is known as “Steroid Nation,” as does Ohio’s governor and the Columbus Dispatch.

My thanks to Kevin Cox, Bob Eckhart, Ed Efsic, Rebecca Hunley, Kay Bea Jones, Bill Lyons, Ellen Manovich, Joe Mas, Joe Motil, Michael Wilkos, and unnamed staff members of City of Columbus, CPD commanders, officers, and Internal Affairs inspectors.

Further reading

Columbus’ identity crisis and its media

The decline of a once vital neighborhood: Columbus’ University District

Notes on current politics in Columbus and Ohio: Thoughts in response to questions from my editor

OSU isn’t having a crime crisis; it’s having a leadership crisis

Response to Columbus Alive, ‘The list: Reasons that Columbus Underground opinion piece is trash,’ by Andy Downing and Joel Oliphint, Columbus Alive, July 26: A visit to journalism fantasy land

‘Update’ to Ohio State isn’t having a crime crisis

Columbus city government is undemocratic and disorganized: It’s 2021 and we need a revolution

Columbus searches for its Downtown with historical, urbanist, and developers’ blinders

Columbus, Ohio, searches to be a city: The myth of the Columbus Way

Ohio State versus ‘campus safety’

Is Columbus really a city?

Columbus isn’t Cowtown or Silicon Valley Heartland; it’s the lawless, wild-wild-Midwest

How Columbus, Ohio State University, and major developers destroyed a historic neighborhood, Part One

How Columbus, Ohio State University, and major developers destroyed a historic neighborhood, Part Two

How Columbus, Ohio State University, and major developers destroyed a historic neighborhood—A continuing saga

My short life as a ‘civic leader’ in the directionless maze called the City of Columbus, Part One

My short life as a ‘civic leader’ in the directionless maze called the City of Columbus, Part Two

Franklinton, 1797-2022 and Columbus’ Contradictions, Part 1

Franklinton, 1797-2022 and Columbus’ Contradictions, Part 2

How the Harvard Business School and the Columbus Way attempt to enrich each other: Lessons in the promiscuous relationships between Columbus’ private interests and an elite university’s profiteering,” with Bob Eckhart

An open letter to Kenny McDonald, new head of the ‘Columbus Partnership’


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 on social history, the history of literacy and education, and interdisciplinarity, he writes about the history and contemporary condition of higher education 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 is published by Palgrave Macmillan this summer.