A White House with peeling paint, a rotting wood deck and a boarded up door
When maintenance is neglected for too long, houses can become health and safety hazards. The Richland County Land Bank has torn down nearly 700 blighted properties in the last decade. Most, like this house on Springmill Street, were located within the city of Mansfield.

Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a five-part series about the challenges low-income renters face and potential ways to address them. The series is supported by Wayfinders Ohio. Be sure to check out parts one, two and three.

MANSFIELD — Nicole Davis lived in her last apartment for less than a year, but the property changed hands multiple times.

She said she had a total of three landlords, but only knew the first one.

“The other lady, she lived in Florida, so I never saw her, never spoke to her,” Davis said.

As the property passed from one entity to another, there were times when her family went days without hot water. Her basement was infested with water bugs, cockroaches, mice and black mold.

“We were stuck not knowing who to pay our rent to, not knowing who to call for maintenance,” she said.

It’s common for rental properties to be owned by a business, typically a limited liability corporation (LLC). Many landlords and real estate investors use LLCs for legitimate reasons. They allow multiple partners to invest together, shield investors’ personal assets and reduce the owner’s tax burden. 

But LLCs can also make it difficult to determine who actually owns a property. Without that information, local codes enforcement officials and tenants have little recourse if a unit is poorly maintained.

Cities like Akron, Athens, Sandusky and Youngstown have tackled this dilemma by passing rental registry legislation.

The 2023 Richland County Housing Needs Assessment also suggests creating a rental registry.

So, what is a rental registry and how does it work?

What are rental registries?

Rental registries generally require property owners to provide their municipality with contact information before renting out any residential property. Most also require owners who live a certain distance from the property to designate a local agent the city can contact in case of an emergency.

Heather Sayler, director of Bowling Green’s planning department, said the city instituted its rental registry after a neighborhood plan recommended it.

“It has been helpful to have a contact person, phone number and email,” Sayler said in an email.

Multiple Ohio cities have some form of a rental registry, but fee structures, renewal guidelines and inspection requirements vary.

Some municipalities require property owners to renew their registration on a regular basis, others only when a property changes hands. Some rental registries involve regular inspections. Others do not. 

Most include a per-unit fee, although in Marietta and Bowling Green, there is no fee associated with the registry.

“City Council passed the ordinance and I think they felt it was easier to get people to register without a fee,” Sayler said.

“The program uses existing staff and our City’s (geographic information system), so there really is not an additional cost at this point besides staff time.”

The Greater Ohio Policy Center recommends property inspections, modest annual fees and fees for non-compliance as components of a successful rental registry. The agency also states rental registries work best when the municipality assigns a specific department or staff member to manage it. 

Akron and Canton: A tale of two cities

Jack Smith is a landlord and president of Stark County Real Estate Investors Association. He said some property owners in Akron and Canton have resisted the implementation of rental registries due to privacy concerns.

“When Akron rolled theirs out, probably in the late ’90s, a lot of people just refused to participate,” he said. “People generally didn’t want the government tracking what they’re doing with their private property.” 

Smith said he’s always complied and believes Akron’s approach is fairly reasonable. The city charges $15 per unit each year, with a cap of $1,500 per property owner.

“Unless there’s really something going on wrong at a property, the government’s not going to bother you,” he said. “That’s been not a big deal.

“Canton on the other hand, I think overreacted.”

Residential landlords in Canton must pay $80 per unit each year. The city also charges $100 for a mandatory inspection each time a property is purchased.

With the stricter inspection requirements and higher fees, Smith said some housing providers now refuse to do business or buy new property in the city.

Smith said his company, Stewart Homes, hasn’t had problems with Canton’s inspectors, though other landlords have complained.

He said inspections are based on the city’s housing code.

“If you’re having trouble meeting those requirements, you’ve got bigger issues,” he said. “We as housing providers should be providing a safe, sanitary and structurally sound home.”

Nevertheless, Smith said cities with inspection requirements should make sure inspectors are properly trained.

He said in the early day’s of Canton’s rental registry, some mistook cosmetic issues for health and safety violations.

“Having qualified people performing these inspections that could cause us thousands of dollars to remedy is a big deal,” he said.

Smith acknowledged the situation with Canton’s inspectors has improved. Representatives from the City of Canton did not respond to requests for comment.

Smith also advised cities considering a rental registry to make sure fees are reasonable. If not, landlords will likely raise rents to cover the cost.

Steve Andrews, director of the Mansfield Metropolitan Housing Authority, said rental registries can be a valuable tool, but can also be counterproductive if the fees are too high. 

“It needs to provide enough income that somebody is actually managing the rental registry,” he said. “But as soon as it becomes a source of revenue for the city, what you’re doing is you’re creating higher rents for all your most needy people.”

What about Mansfield?

Adrian Ackerman, Mansfield’s community development and housing coordinator, said she believes a rental registry could be beneficial for the city.

“(Rental registries) seek to hold owners and tenants accountable for the conditions of property, which is beneficial for blight mitigation,” she explained.

Ackerman said a registry would also help local agencies better respond to complaints, violations and emergencies.

“I recently had an owner contact me who lives out of state, and was completely unaware a property had been on fire a year before,” Ackerman said. “The only contact information we had in this case was an out-of-town management company who did not inform the owner.”

By the time the owner was aware, it was too late for them to file an insurance claim.

Ackerman is part of a committee working on rental registry legislation to present to the city. She said the proposal is in its infancy.

“I have reached out and discussed the possibility with local real estate investor groups for the purpose of gaining feedback,” she said. “It will be up to our elected officials if a proposal makes it to City Council, and when.”

Gary Cassady, a local landlord and president of the Mid Ohio Real Estate Investors Association, said he and most of his group’s members oppose the idea of a rental registry.

Cassady said some have expressed privacy concerns, but the primary reason for local landlords’ opposition is the fee.

“It does kind of penalize the guys that are actually out there doing what they’re supposed to be doing, maintaining their properties and so forth,” he said.

“I do see both sides though, especially where they’ve had problem tenants and out-of-state, absentee landlords that don’t take care of their properties.”

Ackerman said her department’s proposal will definitely include a fee, though it will likely be lower than other municipalities’.

“Obviously we need to ensure we can cover the cost of program implementation,” she said.

If the program’s revenue is sufficient, Ackerman said she’d like to hire another code enforcement officer. The city currently has two. Meanwhile, Mansfield has approximately 25,000 housing units, including about 14,000 rentals.

“I would also like to see the fees supplement other neighborhood improvements such as sidewalks, street lighting, and possibly even low-income loans to assist property owners in maintaining or revitalizing their properties,” she said.

Due to the low number of code enforcement officers, Ackerman said the committee likely won’t include regular inspections as part of its rental registry.

“(We) would most likely build in language that certain events on a property would trigger an inspection,” she said.

Staff reporter at Richland Source since 2019. I focus on education, housing and features. Clear Fork alumna. Always looking for a chance to practice my Spanish. Got a tip? Email me at katie@richlandsource.com.