Posted March 28, 20204:49 pm
When the coronavirus pandemic’s devastating effect on the economy began to take shape, Cleveland landlords Scott Kroehle and Anna Perlmutter reached out to their tenants with a message: “Nobody has to worry about losing their house during the COVID-19 crisis.”
The couple knew that many of their tenants would be dealing with lost income and employment, and might be unable to pay rent on April 1.
It’s a hardship with which millions of Americans are grappling. But how exactly that plays out for tenants may depend on where they live.
Ohio, at least for now, has left it up to local courts to decide how to proceed with eviction cases. The coronavirus relief billGov. Mike DeWine signed into law Friday gives courts greater flexibility in how quickly they hear cases, including evictions. While the governor said Thursday that courts need to have the ability to move forward with evictions due to criminal activity, “We want everybody to stay home. Obviously people have to have a home to stay in.”
PIECES OF THE PUZZLE
To help stop the spread of the coronavirus, the Ohio Supreme Court has advised local courts to temporarily halt evictions and foreclosures. And the federal government has taken steps to halt foreclosures on federally backed mortgages, evictions of renters in homes covered by federally backed mortgages, and evictions for most tenants in federally subsidized housing.
In Cuyahoga County, all local courts have put a moratorium on evictions, but each court’s order is unique.
Many orders are likely to change, as Ohio is not expected to reach the peak of the virus until May, but here’s how each one is handling evictions, as of March 27, according to the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland:
- Bedford Municipal Court: Eviction cases will not be scheduled through April 10 and move-outs are suspended until further notice.
- Berea Municipal Court: Effective March 23, all eviction hearings will be continued for at least four weeks.
- Cleveland Municipal Housing Court: All nonemergency civil proceedings, including evictions, are suspended through April 17.
- Cleveland Heights Municipal Court: No eviction hearings will be set until further notice from the court.
- East Cleveland Municipal Court: Evictions are stayed until after April 28. Move-outs are stayed until after April 21.
- Euclid Municipal Court: All eviction hearings are continued until further notice.
- Garfield Heights Municipal Court: Pertaining to evictions, bailiff services and implementation of court orders are suspended until further notice.
- Lakewood Municipal Court: All trials scheduled through April 17 are continued.
- Parma Municipal Court: Effective March 23, evictions are continued for 45 days.
- Rocky River Municipal Court: All hearings will be rescheduled.
- Shaker Heights Municipal Court: Through April 13, cases are continued for three weeks.
- South Euclid Municipal Court: All evictions and move-outs are stayed until further order.
How to handle evictions right now “seems to be a puzzle that everybody is trying to put together to get to the same goal, which is to keep people in their homes,” said Susan Jagers, director of the nonprofit Ohio Poverty Law Center, which is among the advocacy groups that have called for a statewide eviction moratorium. Giving the courts the flexibility to postpone eviction cases is a piece of that puzzle, she said, and advocates hope further guidance from the Ohio Supreme Court will lead all local courts to halt evictions.
Housing advocates have also pushed for an increase in rental assistance, to help prevent evictions and homelessness, because, they say, simply delaying evictions may result in a surge of evictions months from now.
“An eviction pause would be good, but it won’t help people pay the rent,” said Marcus Roth, a spokesman for the nonprofit Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio. “We don’t need a flood of evicted people showing up at homeless shelters when the pandemic subsides.”
Leah, a resident at an apartment complex in Akron’s Highland Square neighborhood who asked that her last name be withheld, said she has received almost daily calls from the complex’s property management company, inquiring about her employment and ability to pay rent. And although courts aren’t hearing eviction cases right now, earlier this month she received a three-day eviction notice for nonpayment of rent, which usually sets in motion the eviction process. She plans to move out anyway, but the experience has disheartened her.
“It just puts undue stress on people. At a time like this, we need people to be more compassionate,” she said.
Another resident of the apartment complex, who asked that his name be withheld because he fears retaliation, is also behind on rent because income from his sales job has taken a hit in recent weeks. He, too, has received an eviction notice.
The personal issue that caused Leah to be behind on rent predated the pandemic, but the coronavirus has exacerbated her problems. Shortly after a phone call with a reporter, she sent a follow-up text message: She just found out she was getting laid off.
The Plain Dealer has also heard from numerous Cuyahoga County residents who have recently received eviction notices or been told their landlord won’t be renewing their lease, prompting fears that they’ll be left without a home during a pandemic.
Emergency shelters are already overburdened, and local officials have been trying to drastically reduce shelter populations so that social distancing is possible.
“It is a public health interest to keep people in place where they are now,” said Molly Martin, director of strategic initiatives for the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.
HELP IS AVAILABLE
The inconsistencies in how evictions are being handled is likely to cause confusion.
But Abigail Staudt, managing attorney of the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland’s housing law practice, outlined some steps that tenants who are experiencing economic hardship due to the coronavirus can take.
First of all, they should communicate with their landlord about their situation and whether they will have income, such as unemployment benefits, coming in soon, she said.
If they are served with an eviction notice, she recommends checking the website of their municipal court to see how that court is handling evictions.
Those in need of assistance should call 211, a United Way helpline that connects callers with resources that might be available to them.
If someone is dealing with a significant housing condition issue that is not being addressed, or is unsure about how to respond to an eviction notice or order, they can call Legal Aid’s tenant information hotline, at 216-861-5955 for Cuyahoga County or 440-210-4533 for Ashtabula, Lake, Geauga or Lorain counties.
“The message from our governor is, the most important thing is we keep people safe and healthy, and that means staying in their homes,” Staudt said. “So before moving out of a unit, find out what resources are available, in order to continue trying to flatten the curve.”
Many landlords may be willing to work with their tenants, given the circumstances.
Kroehle and Perlmutter are offering rent deferrals to tenants who need it, and may consider rent reductions or abatements for tenants who will experience long-term financial instability due to the pandemic.
It’s better for everyone to keep people in their homes, Kroehle said. He noted that there are a growing number of mortgage deferral options landlords can take advantage of, which is something he plans to look into.
“For the landlord, this can be a very challenging business,” he said. “But I think it’s important to understand that we’re all going to have to take a hit here.”
If there are widespread evictions for nonpayment of rent, landlord-tenant relationships will be shattered and the customer base on which landlords rely will be unstable for a long time to come, he said.
“This is a time to dig deep and figure out what you can do, and do your part,” Kroehle said. “Everybody is going to have to make concessions here. We either do it kicking and screaming, or we do so thoughtfully and collectively and make these hard choices together.”