The People's Court (Shelterforce)

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The People’s Court (Shelterforce)

Cleveland housing court Judge Raymond Pianka uses innovative legal tactics to achieve code compliance, but is it enough to stabilize neighborhoods?

It isn’t every day that a municipal court judge smacks a convicted criminal with a fine of more than $10 million. After all, municipal courts typically hear misdemeanors, not big time felonies or organized crime cases. Equally unusual is for the judge to tell the criminal how to avoid paying a substantial amount of the fine. But that is exactly what Judge Raymond L. Pianka, the housing court judge in Cleveland, did in June 2010.

Two South Carolina-based firms, Interstate Investment Group and Paramount Land Holdings, had neglected 13 properties they owned until they were so dilapidated that the City of Cleveland had to have them demolished to protect public safety. After the firms were summoned to court and failed to appear, they eventually pled “no contest” in all cases, and Pianka levied a total of $13 million in fines.

Pianka’s attempts to bring far-flung speculators to account for their effects on Cleveland’s neighborhoods are bucking conventional legal practice on several fronts. How and why has Cleveland’s Housing Court become, in the words of Alex Kotlowitz in a 2009 New York Times Magazine article, “one of the most powerful instruments in the city’s fight for survival”?