CLEVELAND – Cleveland City Council Wednesday approved “pay to stay” protections for tenants at risk of eviction because they’ve fallen behind on rent.
The measure allows for renters to stay in their homes if they settle up with their landlord before an eviction hearing is held, or before the Cleveland Municipal Housing Court renders judgment in an eviction case.
Councilman Kerry McCormack called it a “common sense protection” that helps ensure renters aren’t taken advantage of. And Sally Martin, director of Building and Housing under Mayor Justin Bibb, said the measure is “a shot across the bow to show that we are pro-tenants.”
Cleveland’s pay-to-stay provision comes in the form of an affirmative defense against evictions filed for non-payment of rent. It would apply when a tenant has offered to pay their outstanding balance, but the landlord refuses to accept it and pursues eviction anyway. The judge or magistrate hearing the case would still have discretion on whether to accept the defense and allow tenants to stay in place.
The tenant would have to offer up the full sum of their past-due rent, court costs, and any “reasonable” late-payment fees imposed by the landlord, which the city caps at $25 or 5% of monthly rent, whichever is higher.
Tenants could also invoke the pay-to-stay defense if they’ve secured rental assistance that would cover the full cost of their outstanding balance, but have not yet received it. This provision was not part of the original pay-to-stay protections introduced to Council in May, but was added Wednesday at the urging of housing advocacy group Renter Rights Day 1 Advocacy Coalition.
Tens of millions of dollars in federal rental assistance has been distributed in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County since the start of the pandemic, and about $10 million remains available for Clevelanders. CHN Housing Partners has been administering the aid, but it’s taken the non-profit an average of 60 days to distribute the money once a renter has been approved to receive it, said Molly Martin, Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless Director of Strategic Initiatives, and a member of the coalition.
That wait period, Martin said, causes a timing issue because tenants often don’t apply for rental assistance until they receive an eviction notice and are linked with a Legal Aid attorney through Cleveland’s Right to Counsel program.
Under the new provision added Wednesday, the tenant’s approval letter showing they are set to receive rental assistance would allow them to invoke the pay-to-stay defense.
“If the tenant is in court and doesn’t have the money but has a guarantee from [CHN], then the court can consider that as tender and maybe [grant] a continuance or wait until that money comes through, because it’s guaranteed the landlord will get it,” said council attorney Jennifer O’Leary.
The pay-to-stay defense against eviction already exists in Ohio case law, so Cleveland’s ordinance isn’t a new concept, but it does formally add the protection into the city’s code.
The idea gained steam in Cleveland and across the state early in the pandemic, when city leaders sought to curb displacement and housing instability brought on by COVID-19 and its impact on the economy. Ohio is one of five states that allows landlords to evict tenants just one day after missing their payment due-date, Martin said. Akron, Dayton, Cincinnati and Toledo have enacted pay-to-stay protections measures over the past two years, as have Euclid, Lakewood, Cleveland Heights, Maple Heights, Newburgh Heights, and South Euclid. Cleveland City Council has been considering the measure for some time.
About half of Cleveland’s roughly 200,000 homes are rentals. Some 9,000 evictions are filed in Cleveland each year, and about 80% percent are for non-payment of rent, according to a 2019 study from Case Western Reserve University’s Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development.
McCormack, during committee hearings this week, pointed to the health, economic and other benefits of renters being able to reliable on stable housing, particularly given what he called Cleveland’s “tremendous shortage” of affordable housing.
About 80% of evictions in Cleveland involve black women and mothers with children, Martin said, calling it a “crisis” that’s made worse with the growing number of out-of-state and out-of-country landlord that “don’t have a lot of mercy for tenants.”
Nine out of 10 evicted tenants don’t show up at court hearings, meaning the vast majority don’t attempt to mount a defense, Martin said.
Council members Jasmin Santana and Jenny Spencer raised concerns about how Cleveland renters will know they can now mount pay-to-stay defenses in court. And Santana, whose ward is home to a large Hispanic population, was particularly concerned about whether that message would get through to renters with language barriers. “If the residents are not aware … it just really defeats the purpose,” Santana said.
Martin pointed to a variety of options for getting the word out, including through the CHN rental assistance application process, and Legal Aid attorneys.
Several members said the tenant protection is just one measure the city needs to pursue to improve housing affordability and quality in the city.
For example, Councilwoman Rebecca Maurer pointed to the importance of the Right to Counsel program administered by Legal Aid attorneys, because that’s who will likely be spreading the word and helping tenants use the pay-to-stay defense in court. But other city assistance is still needed, she said, including passage of Source-of-Income discrimination protections. That idea, backed by Bibb and many on council, would require landlords to accept tenants who use Section 8 housing vouchers to pay for rent. Landlords are currently able to exclude renters with such vouchers.