I bought my house three years ago with the intentions of doing a restoration. I house-hunted for over a year and looked at around 200 houses before choosing this one because it retained all of its original architectural elements. I am a member of the Lakewood Historical Society and the Cleveland Restoration Society. I run a historic preservation meetup group with a friend of mine. I've attended various workshops and seminars such as the Ohio Historical Society's Building Doctor Clinic, Bob Yapp's seminars on wood window restoration and exterior paint, Cleveland Restoration Society's seminar on exterior paint, and more. I've even had the Cleveland Restoration Society over to pick a couple of historic color schemes for my house. This city supposedly encourages people to be involved in historic preservation. At least that's what one would assume based on this recent Historic Preservation Community Workshop involving the Mayor. Yet I am doing just that and being criminally charged for it.
When I began removing the aluminum siding from the front of the house, I received a complaint letter from the building department stating, "maintain siding and trim"...clearly what I was in the process of doing. Despite my full cooperation with the inspector and complying with exactly what he said (to take care of the few small areas where there was peeling paint), I was summonsed to the prosecutor's office for noncompliance. I called the inspector back to my house to tell me what exactly I was in noncompliance of and he was unable to point out any violations.
A quick check of Lakewood's website revealed this Exterior Building Permit Checklist which states that no permit or inspection is required for exterior painting and that there is no time limit for the job. So obviously there can't be an issue of noncompliance when one is in the process of doing something, let alone something with no time limit. It would be like being cited for having no door on your house while you were in the process of installing a new door.
I got another letter from the building department in August 2010 for peeling paint and giving me one month to correct this. At this point I had removed the aluminum siding from the rest of the house and began the process of stripping paint off the entire house. Clearly something that is physically impossible to accomplish in one month. I decided to bypass the inspector this time and called the head of the building department and explained that I was restoring the house, that I was very actively involved in the local preservation community, and that it was already above the building department and the prosecutor was giving me extensions. He said that "every day is a new violation" so my extension was meaningless (so why do they have extensions then?) but that the inspector must not have realized I was currently working on it and to send a letter and he'd "take care of it".
I sent a large envelope full of pictures of everything I had completed to that point, proof of all the historic preservation seminars, workshops, and classes I had attended, and a long letter explaining everything. I mentioned that I hoped to get the house stripped by the end of the 2011 season. I said if there was anything else, not to hesitate to contact me. I didn't hear anything back. Finally, I thought I had gotten through to someone with some sense.
This season I have worked diligently, stripping the paint off my house. As many know, this is a long process, especially after synthetic siding has been removed. The aluminum was probably covering the original siding for 40-50 years so the original siding hasn't seen the light of day, let alone undergone any maintenance in that time (imagine the amount of work involved in restoring the exterior of a house which hasn't been touched in over 40 years). A lot of trim is broken or cut off the house to accommodate the aluminum. All the drip caps above every window, and the edges of every window sill (about 4") are cut and broken off. All of this has to be fabricated and repaired. Then, if there was any water infiltration over the years, nobody knew about it because synthetic siding hides all of that, so there is rotted wood to replace or repair. There are hundreds of long, rusty staples imbedded in the wood, which had held the aluminum in place. These all have to be removed, sometimes dug out of the clapboard. There are cracked or split clapboards that have to be replaced without destroying surrounding ones. All of the gutters have to be removed in order to remove the aluminum and strip the paint behind them. Then of course the tedious, most time-consuming process of all - removing all the paint to bare wood. The paint stripping in itself takes multiple "seasons" (in Ohio we only have certain months a year that are warm enough to work outside). Everyone I've talked to who has stripped paint off their house (and didn't even have synthetic siding to remove first) took between 2-4 seasons. And that's not even taking into consideration the other projects I've done: replacing the cedar shake, demolishing the vestibule, replacing the custom-milled side railing, refinishing the front door, etc. Then every vertical seam in the wood siding has to be caulked, and the house has to be painted. I have invested in all the tools and equipment to make the process go as fast as possible. I own 4 levels of contractor grade exterior scaffolding, the paint shaver pro (a very expensive tool specifically designed to strip lead paint from clapboard siding in the fastest way possible), numerous professional scraping tools, etc.
Throughout this whole restoration process, I've had many people - neighbors and random people driving or walking by - stop to tell me what a great job I'm doing and how much they admire all my hard work and dedication. Many saying they wished they had the energy to do the same to their houses. On average, I have at least one person stop per weekend to compliment me. A few weeks ago, a neighbor from around the corner whom I had never met parked in front of my house, got out and stood in my driveway clapping and saying "bravo" while I was working on the dormer. He explained that he has been following my progress all along and wanted to tell me what a great job I was doing. In fact, I have the full support of my surrounding neighbors, some of which have already contacted the building department to tell them how much better my house looks since I bought it, and many of which are even willing to go to court with me.
Suddenly, without warning, in June of this year I received a certified letter from Lakewood stating that I was being criminally charged for noncompliance. This was 11 months after I had last spoken to the building dept and told that it would be taken care of. Over a year since I had spoken to the prosecutor and told that I wouldn't have to worry about going to court. This was completely out of the blue. No second notice, no call, no letter, nothing whatsoever. So naturally, everyone thought it was some kind of mistake on the city's part that could be easily cleared up.
At this point I had given up hope on the building department (which has a pretty bad reputation anyway) and went straight to the Mayor. I had previously met the Mayor at the auxiliary police Christmas party, spoke with him about the importance of historic preservation, and mentioned that I was restoring my house. I again went through the whole story and showed all my documents and pictures. He seemed as baffled as everyone else who hears about this. His theory was that it was some kind of paperwork mix up at the building department. I mentioned that this is something that I will get an award for from the restoration society and yet the building dept considers it a criminal offense and these are two agencies that are supposed to be working toward the same goal. I was upset over the fact that this city is willing to jeopardize my career and give me a criminal record as their way of showing gratitude for everything I've done for them -risking my life volunteering for the police, volunteering for the Community Emergency Response Team, on top of restoring a house within the city. To which the Mayor said, "that's not going to happen". He thanked me for restoring my house, and said he'd ask around about it and get back to me. A couple days later he called me and told me that they all think I should enter this "housing diversion program". This is basically probation for people with housing code violations, people whose houses have fallen into disrepair and haven't done anything about it. Basically people who are on the extreme opposite end of the spectrum as me. Not people who are so dedicated to working on their houses that they've given up the years of their life that it takes to restore one.
I only agreed to enter this program because it gets rid of the criminal charge completely from record once the program is completed. I was told that this program takes control away from the building department and puts it in the hands of the court (I'm not sure which is the lesser of two evils here). I said to the Mayor that at any point, the court could change their mind and send it back to criminal court. His response, "but that's not going to happen, I talked to the Judge..." I was contacted by the man in charge of this program. I explained the situation to him and he said he was on my side. Basically as long as I was showing progress, (which has never been an issue considering it's an obsession of mine), I'd be fine.
However, much of this turned out to be untrue. The only person the judge cares to hear from is the building inspector, who stands next to me at the hearings. The guy running the program stands next to the inspector and agrees with whatever he says (in every case I've seen). I've taken pictures and offered them to the judge more than once and he has declined to even look at them. The inspector has said that there's basically been no progress when I have over 100 hours into something and my neighbors are commenting on how good it's looking. The judge has already threatened to kick me out of the program at the next hearing (something the Mayor assured me wouldn't happen) and I've only been in the program a few weeks. When trying to explain the common sense factor that house restoration (or car restoration or boat restoration) is something that takes years, not weeks, they don't care. I'm expected to do something that's never been done before and is not physically possible. But realistically, if it was an issue of time, then everyone who's restored a house would have been criminally charged and I wouldn't be the first and only one to go through this. In fact, I know of someone locally who is still stripping the same side of the house that they were stripping last year. On top of this, the rules seem to change at each hearing. At one hearing they are fine with something, the next they aren't. They bring up things that have nothing to do with the citation and add things they want me to do which aren't backed by any code. I was told by the judge that since I work full time, I can afford to pay someone to do this. I didn't realize that working full time meant I had thousands of dollars sitting around. I don't know anyone who's paid contractors to restore (or even strip paint off) their house. The estimates I got to fully strip and paint the house were around $30k.
In this time, several people - neighbors, auxiliary police officers, representatives of the Cleveland Restoration Society, etc have contacted the Mayor and/or building department expressing their unhappiness over this situation and support of me. Yet the city has not backed down. They've been given multiple opportunities to do the right thing and haven't. They even put down the wrong code for what they were charging me with, coming back to a chimney code violation (which I don't have). When I brought it to their attention, the prosecutor responded with, "well I'm just going to refile it and you'll have to come back here" (to court) if I wouldn't agree to let them correct it then and there. When I mentioned that "I'm not the first person to restore a house", the prosecutor responded with, "it doesn't take them two years!" Really? I'd love to meet someone who's done it in one, especially when you subtract the 5+ months of winter/cold/rain/snow/ice. In fact, at the first hearing, everyone including the head of the building department showed up for my case. The prosecutor and head of the building department said I'm doing a "fantastic job" restoring my house to "historic likeness" but that it's taking too long. It took 100 years for all the paint, aluminum, broken/removed trim, damaged/rotted wood, etc to happen, but I should be able to undo it all in less than one.
I think my only hope now is to bring as much attention to this as possible, in hopes that the city will get tired of the bad publicity and finally do the right thing. I think they owe me a pretty big apology and maybe some gratitude for everything I've done for them, from the work on my house to the volunteer work.
I'd appreciate if people reading this blog could forward my story to as many people as possible. Thanks for reading and please comment.
Yesterday was my first hearing since this story has gone public. The city has received a lot of phone calls and emails complaining about this. My story has been in local media as well as all over the internet and will probably be in a couple national magazines. I had to hire an attorney to represent me. I've received tons of supportive emails and comments and I appreciate it very much. I've also received a couple donations and would like to thank those contributors.
Yesterday I went to court with four of my immediate neighbors who support me and my restoration. My attorney and I went up before the judge and he asked the inspector about the progress made since my last hearing Sept 2nd. The inspector responded with his standard, textbook response, "no progress made." I'm pretty sure I heard my neighbors (sitting behind me in the courtroom) whisper "no progress made?!" They later told me they would have been held in contempt of court "within the first five minutes" if they were in my shoes and were amazed at my composure. My attorney then told the judge that there has in fact been substantial progress made and asked to approach the bench with the photographic evidence. The judge told him to talk to the inspector about it and we were excused to go out to the hall and talk.
My attorney showed the inspector the pictures of what's been done since the last hearing. The dormer, including window jambs, has been primed (after being fully stripped which was the most difficult challenge so far in the stripping process), the storm windows replaced. And the north side, which hadn't been touched yet at the last hearing, was fully stripped to bare wood (including the upside down bead board on the underside of the overhang and each and every bead), and cracked clapboards replaced. I have begun sanding the north side and I figure there are probably 4-5 more days of work that need to be done on that side, including priming, if it would ever stop raining.
He shows all this to the inspector and the inspector responds by saying that he doesn't consider "prep work" to be progress! Literally, that's what he said. He said only paint counts as progress. So basically, all of the hard work, the most time consuming work, the most challenging work, the most important work of all, that completely determines what the finished product will look like and how long it will last, does not count. Only the easiest, simplest, quickest, final step of all is what counts as progress. In percentages, we could probably say that 95% of this work is prep work, and the final 5% is paint.
We go back into the courtroom and the inspector states to the judge that there is a discrepancy as to what constitutes as progress and that he doesn't consider prep work to count. Thankfully, the judge and everyone else was in much better spirits. The judge even stated that I could take the following day off work and spend it painting the whole house, but without the prep work, and with the nonstop rain we're having, the paint would probably start peeling again by May. I couldn't agree more. The prosecutor told the judge that we have broken the record for the most rainfall this year. When things started to go off track, the prosecutor reminded everyone that I was only cited for peeling paint. My attorney told the judge that I hope to get the north side done before the end of this year and the entire house done by the end of next season. The judge was apparently satisfied and I was allowed to remain in the diversion program, and given the next hearing date in December.
The inspector then told the judge that he wants to be able to inspect my house without worrying about any kind of confrontation, acting as though he feared I would attack him or something. The judge asked him if there'd ever been a problem like this with me. The inspector hesitated and I honestly thought he was going to say that there had before finally admitting that there hadn't. I informed the judge that I've never even been home when he's been over to do an inspection, I've never seen him on my property ever except for the one time mentioned previously in this blog when I called him over, during which I was sitting on my front steps and calmly asked where the violation was. Also, I am a 5'3" female living alone and this guy is probably 6'4". And as mentioned, I have a security clearance (i.e. crystal clean record) and certainly have never committed any violent acts. So he told the judge that sometimes, when they do inspections, they are confronted by homeowners. The judge told him that we'll worry about those people then, and not the people who have never caused any problems.
Anyway, I've begun sanding the north side. The weather has been horrible. It rains every single day. I probably have a couple days worth of sanding to do. Then wash the side in TSP. Then hope for enough dry days for it to dry to less than 15% moisture content so I can prime.