El Rancho Rankin Refugee Speaks Out

Commentary by Tom Malroy
Originally published in the Cincinnati Homeless Grapevine, a precursor to Streetvibes

I was the last person to give up my apartment at El Rancho Rankin.

I kept my belongings there to preserve my right to sue the Estate of Col. Rankin Harrison which had been operating El Rancho illegally since his death. The employees of El Rancho had said the estate would put up a strong defense in an attempt to reopen the El Rancho at the court hearing on June 11.

I arrived in court at fifteen minutes before 9:00 to find the two lawyers shaking hands over an uncontested agreement to allow the building to be kept vacant. Had I not entered two motions in the case the lawyers would have been gone from the courtroom well ahead of the normal 9:00 starting time and the television and print reporters who showed up.

At the June 11 hearing, I asked Judge Cartolano to state for the record that I would retain the right to sue the estate even if I turned in my key. THe judge agreed. My next motion concerned the other tenants. I asked the judge if they could enter into a class action lawsuit even though they had gotten their deposits back. The judge said yes. The other tenants had been forced to leave on short notice against their will and therefore didn’t give up their right to sue by taking their deposits back.

Judge Cartolano also stated that no one had been evicted since no eviction actions had been taken in court. The tenants had merely been forced to leave. This sounds like a small technicality but it is an important one. This ruling opened the door for a suit against the estate on the grounds of “constructive” eviction. That is a situation where tenants are forced to move because the landlord allowed the apartments to become uninhabitable. This is exactly what happened at El Rancho. Despite having close to $200,000 in the bank the estate didn’t even attempt repairs on electrical and fire code violations that posed a very serious danger to the life of anyone staying at the place. As Judge Cartolano said the El Rancho was equal to the ValuJet in disaster potential.

You may wonder why the estate allowed the situation to continue to the point where the court had to condemn the building. The simple answer is money. The lawyer for the estate admitted in court that they had received a couple of offers for the El Rancho, but that the offers were too low.

The reason that the offers were low was that the El Rancho had no motel license and had been served with an inch all stack of housing code violations. Any sensible purchaser would figure the value of the raw land and subtract the cost of removing the tenants and demolishing the building. This would take a few months and a lot of money…look at how long it took to empty the Milner.

During that period, the new owner would have to find some way to insure the place against things like fire that could have killed literally hundreds of people. Because of this the estate almost certainly got very low offers on the El Rancho.

However, by allowing the place to be condemned the tenants would all disappear. The property could then be sold for about $200,000 more. The added bonus was that the place was full to capacity with rent paying tenants right up to the day of the court oder. The El Rancho was estimated in the Cincinnati Enquirer article to be netting about $400,000 profit a year.

A question that I had was how the employees of the El Rancho could have been so gullible. After all they lost their homes too. I found the answer when I looked at Col. Harrison’s will. All the employees were mentioned in the will. Most were given either one and one-half or three percent of the estate. One and one-half percent of $500,000 is $7,500. The employees couldn’t get their money until the place was sold. If they were fired before the estate was settled they would get nothing. This was a pretty strong incentive to go along with whatever the lawyers told them to do or say.

The long and the short of it is that what the estate did was unquestionably wrong and almost certainly illegal. The El Rancho tenants were lied to, placed in great personal danger, and then thrown out on the street. The estate should be made to refund rent, pay damages arising from the move, and pay punitive damages for exposing the tenants to great risk.

There is little difference between what the estate did and cases where developers have knowingly put homes on toxic waste dumps. Also, the estate wasn’t managed by ignorant people. The co-executors are prominent local lawyers who certainly knew what they were doing but decided to take a chance that no one would speak up. They were almost right.

I’m as mad as hell. A lot of people are still homeless and unemployed due to what the estate did. I’m going to sue even if I have to do it alone. I would rather this would be a class action suit. The estate should be punished in court so that this thing does not happen again the next time some greedy landlord wants to empty a building cheaply.