Posted May 18, 20213:30 pm
Some Cleveland City Council members are considering a local eviction moratorium to provide a safety net for tenants amid concerns that a federal ban on evictions for nonpayment during the coronavirus pandemic could soon come to an end.
The prospect of extending the moratorium, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first enacted in September, within the city limits has support from housing advocates and Cleveland Housing Court Judge W. Moná Scott.
To them, the moratorium has been a key tool in preventing mass evictions during the pandemic-induced recession that began in early 2020 and would give an outside agency running a city-funded rental assistance program time to catch up on applications.
However, city officials are facing pressure from landlord groups that want to see the moratorium end, and the mayor’s office says the city does not have the authority to enact such a ban. Others on council also share skepticism of Judge Scott’s position that City Council can take such a sweeping action.
Still, Councilman Blaine Griffin said Monday that “every council member knows we will have to take some action, but we have to take the right action.”
Council is also dealing with an uncertain deadline. The CDC eviction moratorium, which it enacted to help struggling people stay in their homes and prevent the spread of the coronavirus, is set to expire June 30. It’s unclear whether the federal government will again extend it.
Advocates also fear the national moratorium could end even sooner, given the myriad of legal challenges it faces across the country, including in Ohio. Earlier this month, a judge in Washington, D.C. struck down the moratorium, ruling that federal law does not give the CDC the authority to bar evictions for nonpayment of rent.
U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich put her ruling on hold on Friday, meaning the moratorium remains in effect while the Justice Department pursues an appeal. But housing advocates fear that a similar ruling could come any day, and with it an order that says the CDC can no longer enforce its measure.
“From our experience … an eviction moratorium has allowed our clients time to secure important rent assistance,” Melanie Shakarian, Legal Aid Society of Cleveland Director of Development & Communications said in a statement. Her employer represents tenants facing eviction and a letter the nonprofit drafted also went to Council.
“This helps compensates landlords, and – in turn – benefits neighborhoods so rental units are maintained and communities thrive,” she said.
Chloé Sudduth, advocacy director for the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, said that “people may feel like things are improving from a public health perspective not in the clear yet and it’s going to be with us for a long time.”
Councilman Griffin said that something needs to be done, and he is not alone on Council.
Judge Scott, in a letter to the mayor’s office and City Council, said many tenants who have applied for rental assistance through a program run by CHN Housing Network are still waiting, and a moratorium is necessary to ensure tenants have a chance to catch up on rent if they’ve applied to the program.
“Many tenants have waited months to receive rental assistance from CHN, only to have their landlord reject the funds and proceed with an eviction,” Scott wrote in her May 12 letter. “In other cases, landlords accept the funds, and proceed with an eviction months later, which is counterproductive to both economic and public policy.
“Currently under Ohio law, a landlord has the right to reject late rent. But when millions of dollars are available to keep tenants in their homes, and make landlords whole, legislative and executive officials should acknowledge their responsibility to promote sound public policy.”
CHN is in favor for the same reasons. The agency has approved 4,825 rental assistance requests filed by Cleveland residents and has paid landlords more than $12 million, according to a May 12 letter from Executive Director Kevin Nowak.
The Northern Ohio Apartment Association has opposed the moratorium, as have other groups.
Jeff Rickerman, president of the Ohio Real Estate Investors Association, said the moratorium has hurt landlords who own few properties. He said he’s heard a lot of complaints from property owners about their tenants’ inability to obtain rental assistance.
“The government really needs to focus on making sure that (rental assistance) is easily accessible,” Rickerman said. “If that was available, then there wouldn’t be any need for a moratorium, would there?”
Another issue is uncertainty over who has the authority to enact a local moratorium. Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration said in a statement Tuesday that “the City of Cleveland would support an extension of the eviction moratorium. However, courts have ruled otherwise.
“Additionally, (the Law Department) has given the opinion that the City has no ability to enact an eviction moratorium,” the statement continued. “We continue to provide rental assistance.”
Griffin also said Scott believes she does not have the legal authority to enact a moratorium, but that it is unclear whether Council can pass legislation telling the judge how to handle cases.
“We’re kind of in a quandary,” the councilman explained, “in that even if we did pass something, is that binding to the court because of separation of powers?”
Council President Kevin Kelley did not immediately return a phone call. Councilman Tony Brancatelli – who chairs the Development, Planning and Sustainability Committee, where any legislation regarding evictions would likely have to pass through – told Housing Court Administrator Jeff Johnson in a May 7 email that it is his understanding that the city has no jurisdiction over municipal courts, per Ohio law and previous cases.
The judge, however, does not appear to share the city’s concerns and said she feels the city and Council have the ability to take action.
She wrote in her letter that Council has authority to regulate landlord-tenant relations, citing a program council members approved to provide lawyers to impoverished residents facing eviction.
While citing no cities in Ohio, Judge Scott cited moratoriums enacted by Atlanta, San Francisco and San Jose. She also referenced “pay to stay” laws, which allow tenants to argue in court that they should stay in their homes if they can immediately pay all owed rent and late fees, passed in Toledo and Dayton. Some Cleveland council members are considering introducing pay to stay legislation here, though have maintained any measure is not ready.
If the Jackson administration and council pass an eviction moratorium, Scott wrote that she “would have a legal remedy to enforce.
“Without such remedy, this Court will have no other choice but to displace those already on the margins of society, which will be devastating,” Scott wrote.