Two more landlords have sued Kent over zoning code enforcement

The rental property at 644 S. Water St. is the subject of a lawsuit in the city of Kent. Image via Google Maps

Two Kent landlords are challenging the city’s laws that limit who may occupy a single-family rental unit, arguing that the city is violating residents’ constitutional rights.

The two landlords are New Era Rentals and 644 South Water Street:

  • New Era Rentals was established in 2020 by Brandon Pearl, who owns a residential rental property occupied by four unrelated people at 563 Rellim Dr., an area zoned for medium-density residential housing.
  • 644 South Water Street, established in 2021 by James Pearl, is a residential rental occupied by four unrelated people at that address, which is in a high-density multifamily-commercial district. All renters at both addresses have their own bedrooms.

On Sept. 23, the city sent letters to James Pearl requesting payment of $600 for operating a residential rental unit without a housing license and operating a rooming house. According to the letter, the violations date back to September 2020. 

Unless the fines were paid by Oct. 3, the city stated the amount due would double, and would increase to $1,800 if sent for collection on property tax. However, if he admitted guilt and paid within 48 hours, the fines would be reduced by half.

The city also informed Pearl that his license for residential rental property at 644 S. Water St. had expired Sept. 9, that he was operating without a current license, and that the property, which Kent insists is “zoned as a single-family dwelling with no more than two unrelated residents,” is operating illegally as a rooming house.

Brandon Pearl received an identical letter for his property. 

Instead of admitting guilt, complying with Kent’s zoning code and paying the fines, New Era Rentals and 644 South Water Street LLC filed suit in Portage County Common Pleas Court in November. Since then, the plaintiffs’ and defendant’s lawyers have squared off in two status conferences; another is set for July 28.

The New Era Rental/644 South Water Street lawsuit is the latest in a string of lawsuits several landlords have filed against Kent. In the others, the landlords objected to the city tying their rental licenses to property inspections, and to being fined if inspections were not scheduled and completed. One such lawsuit was settled out of court, with the inspections and fines being canceled. A Portage County Common Pleas Court judge is still considering how the second one will be decided.

Relying on Kent’s current zoning code, attorneys for New Era Rentals and 644 South Water Street reason that the city’s own definitions of single-family dwellings actually allow such addresses to be occupied by three or more unrelated people.

Kent disagrees, insisting that a household unit is a family; a single family and one unrelated person; a single person or two unrelated people; or any of the four designations and a caregiver or caregivers. 

For rental purposes, Kent’s zoning code further defines a family as individuals who are related by marriage, legally recognized civil union, adoption, or who are within three or fewer degrees of blood relation.

According to that notion, a person’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren may live together. A person may also live with their parents, siblings, and nieces and nephews, with their grandparents and aunts and uncles, and with their great-grandparents.

Cousins of any degree are off limits, as are grand and great-grand nephews and nieces, grand and great-grand uncles and aunts, and great-great grandparents.

On Jan. 3, 2022, Kent issued zoning use certificates to 644 South Water Street and New Era Rentals, allowing their properties to be rented as single-family dwellings, and specifying single family to mean “no more than two unrelated residents permitted.”

Since the plaintiffs are each renting to four unrelated people, Kent’s stance is that the companies are operating illegal rooming houses.

Even if the court would uphold Kent’s concept as to who may occupy a single-family dwelling, the plaintiffs’ lawyers point to a 2019 federal court ruling that ordinances limiting the occupancy of unrelated people are unconstitutional. In that case, Yoder vs. the City of Bowling Green, the judge stated that Bowling Green could not prohibit, fine or punish the occupancy of a home when the number of unrelated occupants does not exceed the number of bedrooms.

For its part, Kent has issued invoices and warning letters threatening legal action to both plaintiffs and has withheld their rental licenses. The city’s stance is that the plaintiffs are in violation of local ordinances and are operating illegal rooming houses.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys insist that their clients are not violating any laws and ask the judge to keep Kent from continuing to act on “threats” specified in the city’s warning letters and invoices.

They also ask the judge to require Kent to issue the required rental licenses, or at least to keep Kent from withholding those licenses on the grounds that more than three unrelated individuals live in those rental units.

The attorneys additionally take issue with Kent’s ability to enforce its own ordinance, alleging that the city refers to violations punishable under section 501.13(n), which does not exist.

Even if the ordinances could be taken to mean that three or more unrelated people could not cohabitate, the plaintiffs allege that those same laws violate their Ohio constitutional rights to acquire, possess their property, to rest assured that private property is inviolate, that all political power rests with the people, and that the state — not Kent — has the sole right to determine whether a violation has occurred.

The attorneys ask the court to declare portions of Kent’s zoning code invalid, to stop Kent from taking enforcement actions against their clients, and to require the city to issue appropriate rental licenses.

Or, the attorneys say, the court could declare that the plaintiffs’ conduct is “not in violation of the terms of Kent’s ordinances.”

Kent’s response, filed Jan. 5, 2023, denies the plaintiffs’ allegations, citing their “lack of knowledge” and saying the ordinance must be read in context with the complete Kent zoning code.

Because Kent has the right of home rule or self-government, the plaintiffs’ constitutional claims do not apply, the city said. Kent’s legal department also said that the plaintiffs did not state a claim against the city upon which relief could be granted, that the plaintiffs have suffered no actual injuries or damages, and that the city has “governmental immunity.”

Finally, the city alleged, “Plaintiffs claims are barred, in whole or in part, because the Plaintiffs have unclean hands,” that is, the city believes the landlords engaged in similar misconduct in the past.

Kent’s attorneys ask the court to bar the plaintiffs from continuing to violate the city’s zoning code, and to fine them $400 and to levy an additional $100 for every 10 days the violation continues.

Both sides ask the court to award costs and fees, with Kent also requesting “any other relief in law or equity to which the defendant is entitled.”

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.