This article originally appeared on VICE US
Tamara Adrine-Davis posted two signs on the front lawn of her Cleveland Heights, Ohio, home late Friday night. One warned passersby: “I’m going to jail cuz I’m broke, disabled, and can’t fix my home.” The other read: “PLEASE HELP” with a link to her GoFundMe page.
The 57-year-old freelance journalist is currently on probation due to a handful of housing code issues, like chipped and decaying paint, a loose gutter, and a broken front porch stoop. The city first notified Adrine-Davis of the problems back in 2014, but she’s severely disabled, uses a wheelchair, and hasn’t been able to come up with the money to make the more than $8,000 worth of repairs to her home. Now, she could face the city’s maximum penalty for a housing violation case: $1,000 in fines, six months in jail for each offense, or both.
Her next court hearing — and the deadline for ensuring her home is in compliance — is Tuesday.
“I have been trying to get ready to go to jail, to be honest with you, and trying to figure out where I can get the money, as if I hadn’t looked all over before,” Adrine-Davis told VICE News. She’s already made arrangements to place her two dogs in someone else's care.
In some states, Ohio included, facing thousands of dollars in fines over minor property violations — and even going to jail — isn’t that unusual. The property codes, instituted and enforced on the municipal level, can help regulate residences that are genuinely dangerous to their inhabitants and neighbors. But they can also unduly punish people living in poverty, and people of color, as Adrine-Davis feels is happening to her.
“There’s this kind of bias in a lot of these rules and codes that city’s have against lower-income residents, maybe because they don’t pay enough in tax revenue, or maybe, frankly, because their houses aren’t as nice,” said Joshua House, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit, public interest law firm based in the D.C. area.
In 2016, for example, a black woman living in Cahokia, Illinois, was arrested over an unmowed lawn. A local official watched over her five children while she was carted off to jail. And this year, an elderly white man’s home in Dunedin, Florida, was threatened with foreclosure after he failed to pay nearly $30,000 in city fines related to his overgrown yard.
“Assuming I survive”
Adrine-Davis said she’s been repeatedly told she could face jail time for failing to fix her home. The city escalated her violation to a criminal offense and took it to Cleveland Heights’ municipal court in January 2018. Almost a year later, she pleaded guilty to the charges and was placed on probation and given time to make repairs.
That extra time wasn’t enough, especially since her disability and chronic pain make it difficult for her to earn extra cash through side jobs. While Adrine-Davis paid to fix the gutter, she can’t afford anything else.
She hasn’t been able to secure a loan to help since her home is in foreclosure after her mom, who had dementia, failed to pay property taxes. And the backpay she owes bars her from the city’s numerous repair aid programs. Her GoFundMe page, which she posted in September, has only raised $80.
In August, the city’s housing code inspector also handed her another violation, this time for her for “leaves and yard waste,” a damaged or missing chimney cap, and long tree branches that touched the roof or gutters. It’s unclear whether the judge at her hearing Tuesday will expect her to have addressed those issues, too.
“Taking a resident to court or having to take additional action is not something the city takes lightly,” Tanisha Briley, the city manager of Cleveland Heights, told VICE News. “These neighbors expect their neighborhood to be beautiful and livable, and they expect the city to take action to make it or keep it that way.”
Since Adrine-Davis hasn’t made any of the repairs to her house — other than the gutter — the judge could reinstate her fines Tuesday and send her to jail. She’s not only worried about spending time behind bars but also what will happen to her after she gets out.
“It will make it much harder for me to rent. I could actually end up coming out — assuming I survive — with no place to live,” she said.
"I go to court, and I see walls of black people."
There’s little data available on housing code violations, specifically, but other offenses like court fines and traffic citations are disproportionately issued to black people. Over the past several years, the Institute for Justice has slung lawsuits at several cities — many majority black, majority low-income, or both — and accused them of systematically pushing out residents with housing code regulations.
“There’s a lot of these middle-class standards that were used to create these housing codes, and sometimes people who are poor just can’t maintain the property,” said Alexes Harris, a sociology professor at the University of Washington who wrote a book on monetary sanctions.
One 2015 lawsuit targeted Pagedale, Missouri, where nearly 40% of the town’s 3,000 mostly black, poor residents had been ticketed for issues like mismatched blinds, cracked pavement, or a basketball hoop in the driveway. The case was settled after the city agreed to a consent decree and to “substantially” reform its code enforcement practices.
As Adrine-Davis awaits her court hearing Tuesday, she no longer trusts city employees and even dismissed her court-appointed attorney because she felt they weren’t working in her best interest. And she doesn’t trust that what’s happening to her is also happening to her white neighbors in Cleveland Heights.
“I go to court, and I see walls of black people,” Adrine-Davis said. “There was a white woman whose house was also in tax foreclosure, she had not made all of the repairs — the judge just wished her good luck.”
Cover image: Image courtesy of Tamara Adrine-Davis