Posted March 22, 20214:29 am
Marlisa Williams said her problems started in the basement.
Cracked pipes led to a slushy mess on the floor. Then the water spread upstairs, soaking the carpets on the main floor of her rented house in the Cleveland suburb of Euclid.
Williams, who was raising three kids while running a catering business, said she called her landlord to ask for repairs, but the problem didn’t get fixed.
"The only way we could stop it was to turn the main valve off," she said. "So we couldn't take baths. I couldn't wash dishes. I couldn't cook."
She started withholding rent and moved in with a relative until the repairs were made.
Then, last August, Williams stopped by her apartment to find her furniture piled in a dumpster.
Williams said it wasn’t until two days later that the landlord — who didn’t want to comment for this story — formally filed to evict her for unpaid rent.
Euclid Municipal Court ruled in the landlord’s favor because Williams didn’t show up for her hearing or submit paperwork to prove that she qualified for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's eviction moratorium.
But Williams said her landlord also had her mail stopped, so she never got any court notices. She's still living with relatives.
'Self-Help' And Mounting Bills
According to the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, tangled stories like Williams's have become common in the era of COVID-19. The moratorium's limits on legal evictions may be tempting some landlords to resort to what are called “self-help evictions," said Barbara Reitzloff, a Legal Aid attorney.
"When you hear 'self-help eviction,' you typically think of somebody being locked out of their apartment," Reitzloff said.
Reitzloff added: "But especially in the last month or so, we've had a really large number of clients for whom a landlord files an eviction against them, and then a week or two later, they find out the moratorium is in effect. And then all of a sudden the tenants have no heat or no electricity" — or their furniture and belongings are moved out, like what Marlisa Williams said happened to her.
Any eviction outside the court system is illegal in Ohio. But even landlords who are complying with the moratorium said it's unfair.
Landlord Frank White owns properties in Cleveland, Garfield Heights and East Cleveland. He said he has one tenant who currently owes $6,000 in back rent.
"They want you to keep the water on, they want you to [make repairs]. How could you fix something if you ain’t got income coming in?" White said. "I'm losing big time."
A Coming Wave?
The landlords’ point of view got a boost earlier this month, when U.S. District judge J. Philip Calabrese in Cleveland ruled the moratorium exceeded the CDC’s legal authority.
The effect of that ruling remains to be seen. The U.S. Department of Justice is now appealing a similar decision out of Texas.
But even if the CDC extends the moratorium beyond March 31, which has happened once before, people will still owe accumulated back rent and fees.
"Obligations that are owed — the past due rent, the late fees, interest penalties, if they're applicable — basically that tab is going to be still sitting there [for tenants]," Cleveland Housing Court Chief Magistrate Tracey Gonzalez said.
The bills could prove unaffordable for many tenants, leading to a wave of legal eviction filings like what happened last June, after a different moratorium expired and before the CDC moratorium took effect.
The number of eviction filings in the City of Cleveland alone jumped from zero to more than 300 during a single week, though the Cleveland Housing Court said at the time the jump was smaller than it expected.
Reitzloff of the Legal Aid Society said if a lot of people lose their housing within a short period of time, it could force them to double up with family members or crowd homeless shelters.
With most people still unvaccinated, she said, a spike in coronavirus infections could result.
"The whole idea of the moratorium is to keep people from contracting COVID," Reitzloff said. "It's not to protect tenants who lost jobs because of COVID. I think that's kind of a misconception. It's really to prevent it from spreading."
She and others encouraged both landlords and tenants to seek rental assistance programs such as the one run by CHN Housing Partners.
For low- and moderate-income families, the nonprofit housing services provider pays up to six months of back rent, with checks going directly to landlords.