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Cleveland to restore housing code inspector positions to hold absent landlords accountable

Cleveland City Council members and Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb sit in chairs around a conference table.
Abbey Marshall
Ideastream Public Media
Cleveland City Council President Blaine Griffin addresses Mayor Justin Bibb and Chief Finance Officer Ahmed Abonamah on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024, the first day of budget hearings.

Cleveland City Council is considering adding 20 housing inspectors as the city ramps up efforts to hold absentee and out-of-state landlords accountable.

The proposal comes weeks after council passed Mayor Justin Bibb’s Residents First proposal, a housing code overhaul intended to protect renters.

As council spent weeks vetting the legislation, many members expressed concern over the city's ability to staff the department and implement the new laws. Building and Housing Director Sally Martin O'Toole assured council they would provide the necessary resources and staff to do so.

But after the Bibb administration introduced a new budgeting strategy that moved unfilled positions out of specific departments into a general vacancy pool that could be used across the city, council members raised the alarm again about how the Residents First program would be impacted.

"Obviously it’s vital to make residents first a successful piece of legislation that we have these spots available," said Ward 13 Councilmember Kris Harsh. "Particularly for the exterior point-of-sale inspections and for the need to get caught up with our lead safe certification and the new work that needs to go into the rental registry."

The Bibb administration appeared to hear council loud and clear: on Thursday, the third day of the 2024 budget negotiations, Chief Finance Officer Ahmed Abonamah proposed moving 20 full time positions out of the vacancy pool to the Department of Building and Housing, a move lauded by several council members.

“It’s the mayor’s estimate when it comes to us, but it becomes the people’s budget once it’s in our position," said Ward 8 Councilmember Mike Polensek. "And what this reflects today is we’re looking out for our residents, we’re looking out for our people.”

Abonamah said most of those 20 positions will be entry-level property maintenance inspectors to assist with Residents First compliance while also providing a pipeline for new employees for future work within Building and Housing.

Abonamah also confirmed that the department is undergoing a restructuring process after Ward 15 Councilmember Jenny Spencer asked about the future of Building and Housing.

“We are all so invested in the success of this department," Spencer said. "This is the year of Building and Housing. This is the moonshot year.”

The budget for the entire department is about $9.1 million, making up approximately 2% of the city's overall budget.

Budget hearings will continue through next week before amendments, approval and adoption.

Abbey Marshall covers Cleveland-area government and politics for Ideastream Public Media.