Akron officials ask residents to help shape city's approach to housing policy

·9 min read
An audience of about 50 turned out Wednesday to hear a presentation on new focus groups that will look into various housing issues in the city over coming months. Most agreed to serve as volunteers on six focus groups looking into problems and solutions.
An audience of about 50 turned out Wednesday to hear a presentation on new focus groups that will look into various housing issues in the city over coming months. Most agreed to serve as volunteers on six focus groups looking into problems and solutions.

​​​​​What will conditions be like for Akron's tenants of privately owned, subsidized housing in coming years? What new regulations will property owners and managers face?

After hearing multiple complaints in recent months, City Council members are leading six groups of volunteers to recommend steps the city should take to address housing issues.

Those volunteers may eventually also end up recommending policy for larger housing issues, members of Akron City Council's Safe Housing Steering Committee said Wednesday during an hourlong presentation at the downtown Akron-Summit County Public Library.

A brief question-and-answer period followed the presentation, and about three dozen of those in attendance signed up to work on the committee's new focus groups.

The groups will look into issues ranging from code enforcement and property maintenance, to social services for tenants, communication between tenants and property owners, security concerns and a plan to continue oversight into rental housing over the long term.

Akron City Council member Linda Omobien (At-Large) addresses a crowd of about 50 at an informational session regarding housing issues Wednesday at the Akron-Summit library's main branch.
Akron City Council member Linda Omobien (At-Large) addresses a crowd of about 50 at an informational session regarding housing issues Wednesday at the Akron-Summit library's main branch.

Akron's response to complaints: Akron City Council forms safe housing steering committee after series of tenant complaints

Action promised this year

City Council and dozens of resident volunteers expect to see initiatives within just a few months, said Akron City Council President Margo Sommerville, who co-chairs the steering committee, along with Council Vice President Jeff Fusco.

"We're looking at probably a six-month period, but we're also going to be really intentional," she said. "We have some low-hanging fruit, some things that we know right now that we can make some adjustments and changes in the law. These are the things that we're going to bring forth and come out a lot sooner."

She declined to discuss specific changes, explaining the focus groups will be making recommendations to the steering committee for further action.

"I don't want to steal their thunder," she added. "Just looking at the laws that are on our books, looking at things that we know that we can modernize and update — those are the things that will come out much sooner ... What we hope that comes out of these focus groups are things that we can turn into policy, things that we can implement that are going to be able to make sure that we have safe and affordable housing in Akron."

University of Akron Professor Carolyn Behrman, a member of the steering committee, said she expects to see "action steps" that will change conditions "as soon as possible."

She said action should include measures that lead to "better communication, better recognition of each other, and more compassion."

There are no specifics yet, said Ginger Baylor, an Akron City Council At-Large member who, along with Ward 8 Council member Shammas Malik, co-chairs the focus group that will be looking into on laws and ordinances.

"We're just exploring things," she said. "Legislation may need to change ... Laws may need to be updated and some may need to be instituted in order to address the needs of the people."

She said enforcement of city codes is another major issue.

"It's a combination of things, but mostly, they're not being enforced," she said. "It takes manpower, it takes dollars in order to hire somebody that's going to make sure that this is being done when it should be done or within the time frame that is mandated when inspections are being done."

At-Large Council Member Linda Omobien, who with Ward 9 Council Member Mike Freeman co-chairs the group dealing with social services, said an important part of their work will include finding ways to let people know what kind of assistance is available to them, as well as a voter registration drive.

"When you vote, power will come to you," she said.

Akron City Council President Margo Sommerville (Ward 3), addresses the audience at an informational session of council's ad-hoc Safe Housing Steering Committee.
Akron City Council President Margo Sommerville (Ward 3), addresses the audience at an informational session of council's ad-hoc Safe Housing Steering Committee.

Property maintenance, other problems draw attention

Several issues regarding subsidized housing have come to Council's attention over the past year, resulting in council's appointing the safe housing steering committee in March.

In addition to Sommerville, Fusco and Behrman, other committee members include AMHA Board Vice-Chair Roberta Aber, Akron Municipal Court CEO Montrella Jackson, community organizer Cazzell Smith and Summit County Council District 4 Rep. Jeff Wilhite.

Recent housing complaints have ranged from non-functioning elevators at a Wallhaven high rise populated by elderly and disabled residents to poorly maintained and vermin infested properties elsewhere.

Unresponsive, out-of-state property owners have also been a concern, including those recruited by an Internet firm marketing $50 shares in rental properties.

The out-of-state firm that owns the 176-unit White Pond Villa apartments in Wallhaven has been the subject of complaints by residents, many of whom are wheelchair bound or have trouble with stairs and get rental assistance through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 8 subsidy program. Many tenants found themselves virtual prisoners in their rooms when elevators at the complex broke down for weeks at a time earlier this year.

Stuck on six floors: Elevator fails residents of Akron apartment building for older and disabled adults

The owner had purchased the property in December, 2020. It has since hired a new elevator contractor.

Elsewhere in the city, residents of 566 units in the Wilbeth Arlington Homes and Eriksson apartment complexes, which are also owned by out-of-state landlords, formed tenants unions following management threats of eviction and the loss of federal assistance, in addition to rodent and mold infestations, broken sewer lines, windows, doors and air conditioners, unlit stairwells and crime.

Residents organize for change: New tenant unions in East Akron demand better from their landlord

While not specifically related to subsidized housing, other issues have come up in connection with the Internet firm Lofty AI, which started marketing rental units on behalf of property owners in January.

The company divides housing units into $50 shares, with buyers grouped with other shareholders under the umbrella of a limited liability company registered in Columbus. The new LLC then contracts with a management company to handle tenant affairs upon completion of the sale. Not all owner-management changes have gone smoothly, with some tenants complaining about increased rents, evictions and problems with maintenance and utilities.

Online marketplace: Investors are paying $50 per share to buy Akron rental properties. Who wins and who loses?

One of the volunteers who signed up at Wednesday's meeting, who said she is active in the real estate industry, said she hopes something can be done to make it easier for local property investors to deal with competition from elsewhere.

She said local landlords would likely be more accountable and explained non-local investors with cash available – including people from other countries – have the edge over local buyers who may require two weeks to obtain financing.

Rent control, outreach issues

Several of the new focus group members raised other specific issues.

Angie Fawn, who said she is active with housing issues and homelessness in the city, said she signed up to look into issues surrounding rental contracts, specifically potential rent control measures such as those that have been instituted in other cities.

"I was asking what they were going to do when we decide to put in a rental cap and landlords try to gouge tenants in other ways, such as services, for the uses of appliances, or this or that. Any time you tell someone they can only charge so much, they're going to find a way around it."

Members of the Serve the People organization were also in the audience and handed out fliers outlining problems and proposed solutions regarding housing issues.

A statement the group issued later described its participation.

"At several points of the meeting we spoke up to ensure the voices of tenants were heard, to correct the record when city council members lied to the audience, and to demand actual answers to questions," the statement said. The group also said the steering group does not appear to be addressing the city's homeless issue, which it called "half the battle."

However, the group's statement also said it looks forward to seeing the committee turn "solutions developed by tenants into legislation" and at least one member of the group said he had volunteered to serve on one of the focus groups.

A flyer the group circulated prior to the meeting called for rent caps and an end to "arbitrary rent increases," and a "Tenants Bill of Rights," among other demands. 

Refugee and immigrant advocate Samantha Byake drew applause from those in attendance when addressing the committee about relations between immigrants and property managers. Byake later said she volunteered to serve on all six focus groups, and noted thousands of residents face language barriers when dealing with landlords.

"I was the only person representing the immigrants," she said later, adding more new Americans should consider volunteering. "I say to all of them that it would be great for them to know something is going on and I call for all of the refugees and immigrants to participate."

Focus groups created

The six focus groups will report to the safe housing steering committee over the next few weeks and months. No meeting dates or schedule has been announced.

Each group is led by two members of City Council, who are serving as co-chairs of the groups, and each focus group will concentrate on specific topics, including::

  • Law and ordinances: Enforcement of city codes, particularly for repeat offenders; clarifying ADA and accessibility requirements; and creating stronger requirements for registration and accountability for out-of-state and out-of-county housing providers. Co-chairs are Council Members Shammas Malik (Ward 8) and Ginger Baylor (At-Large).

  • Landlord and tenants rights: Evictions, rental assistance and rental caps, and legal services. Co-chairs are Council Members Tara Mosley (Ward 5) and Sharon Connor (Ward 10).

  • Health and social services: Needs assessment; voter registration drive; social service awareness campaign and other related services such as living wills. Co-chairs are Council Members Linda Omobien (At-Large) and Mike Freeman (Ward 9).

  • Property conditions and maintenance: Focus on interior and exterior health and safety issues such as ADA compliance, infestation, elevators, plumbing, roofing, parking, playground, among others. The group will also focus on communications involving conflict resolution and follow-up on issues and communications between tenants and management, including Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority and HUD. Co-chairs are Council Members Phil Lombardo (Ward 2) and Nancy Holland (Ward 1).

  • Public safety: Security patrols, including police and private security; security cameras; building access to ensure regular accessibility inspections. Co-chairs are Council Members Donnie Kammer (Ward 2) and Brad McKitrick (Ward 6).

  • Long-range planning: Develop a plan to continue to support those in publicly-funded privately-owned properties; Develop strategies to improve communication between the City of Akron and the residents in those properties; and develop a mechanism to maintain ongoing communication and collaboration with county and federal agencies with regard to publicly funded privately owned multi-family housing. Co-chairs are Council President Margo Sommerville (Ward 3) and Vice President Jeff Fusco (At-Large).

More information is available on the committees is available at www.akroncitycouncil.org or by calling 330-375-2256. Those desiring to serve on focus teams can sign up at www.akroncitycouncil.org/news/sign-safe-housing-focus-teams-here.

Reporter Eric Marotta can be reached at 330-541-9433, or emarotta@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarottaEric.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: City of Akron asks for residents to help craft future housing policies