By Frank Lewis
In 2013, the city of Portsmouth collected thousands of dollars in rental licensing fees. Rental property owners are currently assessed $50 per unit. Now, Portsmouth City Health Commissioner Chris Smith is closely watching action taking place in a Columbus court.
On Thursday, the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law moved in federal court to immediately enjoin Ohio municipalities, and the city of Mt. Healthy in particular, from enforcing new ‘Rental Permit Programs’ that require small landlords to undergo warrantless inspections, pay permit fees, and obtain a license simply to continue renting their houses to tenants.
In a news release from the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, the organization said such municipal ordinances, in addition to restricting Ohioans’ property rights, subject property owners and tenants to open-ended warrantless searches that violates the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Section 14, Article I of the Ohio Constitution.
“Further, the Rental Permit Program discriminatorily applies only to single family homes, and not to multi-family residences, such as apartments,” the statement reads.
The legal action is filed on behalf of four rental property owners and one tenant, all in the city of Mt. Healthy, Ohio, which is located just outside of Cincinnati in Hamilton County. The organization says the property owners have long rented their property with license or inspections, and their properties have never been the subject of complaint by tenants, neighbors or others.”
“The city has threatened to criminally prosecute and even imprison those individuals if they continue to rent their homes without first submitting to an unconstitutional warrantless search of the entire interior and exterior of these homes,” the organization said. “Both the United States and Ohio Supreme Court have invalidated warrantless inspections of rental property, and repeatedly held that warrantless administrative inspections of business property are generally invalid, absent exigent circumstances. Nevertheless, Ohio cities have vigorously sought to collect licensing fees from area landlords and find cause to impose fines, and the warrantless searches serve as the lynchpin to each of these goals.”
The Center makes reference to what they call “warrantless searches,” and “unconstitutional searches.”
“Local government agents do not have unlimited authority to force entry into Ohioans’ homes or businesses. To the contrary, houses are one of the types of property specifically mentioned by the Fourth Amendment; and Ohioans have a moral and constitutional right to exclude others, even government agents, from their property. Entry requires either a warrant or an emergency, and neither is present with respect to these suspicionless rental inspections, ” Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center, said. “Government inspections or one’s home frequently results in arbitrary orders to make thousands of dollars worth of untenable improvements to even the most well-maintained properties. The right to own property in Ohio has little value if local governments can continuously chip away at one’s right to actually make use of that property, requiring government permission slips for even the most basic human arrangements.”
Thompson told the Daily Times the organization filed a preliminary injunction this week and expect a status conference on the issue next week.
In Portsmouth the owners of multiple units under one roof are given a discount. The owner of a duplex is assessed $80. However, if a property owner has two single houses, they are still assessed $50 per house.
“I really support the program. I think it has already done a lot of good. It has done a lot of good for landlords; for tenants and for property owners in the neighborhoods,” Smith said. “If you look at the roof that collapsed recently on Second Street there were people living in there until we had them move out because it was unsafe. The Rental Program literally has probably saved lives.”
Smith said he believes the Rental Program is constitutional.
“If the program doesn’t go long term it has still already done a lot of good,” Smith said. “But I’m completely confident that it’s constitutional, and I think it will continue to be a great program for the city.”
Frank Lewis can be reached at 740-353-3101, Ext. 252, or on Twitter @FrankLewispdt.