Posted November 18, 202212:00 pm
By: Sarah Buduson
ELYRIA, Ohio — Federal housing authorities sometimes withhold rent from landlords receiving housing choice vouchers. Its goal is usually to force the homeowners to make repairs after failed inspections. A News 5 investigation found the policy doesn't always produce results. In fact, it can hurt the low-income tenants it intends to help.
How often it happens
Records obtained by News 5 show the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority withheld rent from landlords 7,670 times during a 9-month period from January through September 2022.
We found 4,012 of held payments were later cancelled, which means the landlords made the necessary repairs to continue receiving Section 8 voucher payments.
However, we also found 3,658 landlords' payments are still on hold. It's unclear from the data how many of those landlords still plan to make repairs or if CMHA cancelled their contracts.
News 5 also obtained information from the Lorain Metropolitan Housing Authority. An LMHA spokesperson said they abated rent to landlords in the voucher program 275 times between July 2021 and October 2022.
How it can go wrong
Records show 518 Lake Ave. in Elyria failed an inspection last April. Among the slew of issues, the inspector noted there was a "potential for structural collapse" after finding the bathroom ceiling falling in, structural damage to the dining room wall and wires near water in the garage.
After the owner failed to make repairs, LMHA abated rent to the property.
"Nobody should live this way because people are not doing what they're supposed to do," said Daria Cole, 66, the home's tenant.
But instead of making repairs, her landlord sent her an eviction notice.
How tenants can get help
Attorneys for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland were not surprised when we shared Cole's story. After analyzing their calls for help, Legal Aid found many involved tenants complaining about poor conditions in their homes.
"We saw a significant increase in the number of people that were reaching out to Legal Aid for help with housing," said Lauren Gilbride, managing attorney for Legal Aid's Intake Department and Volunteer Lawyers Program.
"Stories would shock you," she said. Some calls were about evictions. More involved "substandard living conditions, utility shutoffs, partial and full lockouts of property."
After seeing the need, Legal Aid created a new program, called Lawyers Advocating for Safe Housing (LASH) that will engage volunteer attorneys to assist tenants, which will be run by Bobbi Saltzman, staff attorney, Volunteer Lawyers Program.
"The goal of the program is to get assistance before it get to the level of eviction or gets to the level of people being injured further if there is exposure to lead or to mold or to falling ceilings or things like that," Saltzman said. "There’s a lot of funding out there if the landlord and tenant can work together or if that isn’t feasible, then tenants have a lot of options."
How landlords evade accountability
Attorneys for Legal Aid said even they struggle to hold landlords accountable for poor conditions because it can be difficult to locate owners.
Our exclusive News 5 investigation found at least 13% of Cleveland homes are now owned by investors, who often hide behind their business entities.
"It's a limited liability corporation that transferred to another limited liability corporation that bought from another consortium of limited liability corporations," said Maria Smith, supervising attorney.
"You can figure out who the owner is," she said. "The problem is can you figure out the individuals that represent this fictitious entity that is the owner? And then, can you figure you what they knew and can you get an order that's enforceable?"
How investors impact communities
Our previous report also found at least 3,059 Cleveland homes are now owned by business entities with tax mailing addresses outside Ohio. We also found 59 where owners listed international addresses.
Local leaders, renters, and housing experts said corporate owners, particularly when they are not local, are less likely to maintain their properties and respond to tenants' complaints.
"I think all we are is a line on a spreadsheet to them," said Kris Harsh, Cleveland City Council, Ward 13, which includes Old Brooklyn and part of the Stockyard neighborhoods.
For example, records show Michael B. Wilson, an Oregon doctor, purchased 518 Lake Ave. last March.
Cole said she has never met or spoken to her landlord.
When News 5 reached out to Wilson at his office, the receptionist refused to connect us to him and then hung up. Two emails we sent to him also went unanswered.
Wilson may not be aware the tenant he evicted, after he failed to do repairs required by LMHA, is visually impaired.
Cole said she didn't know the piece of paper she found tacked to her door a few months ago was an eviction notice until she scanned it through her reading machine.
"I'm a survivor. I'll figure out what to do," she said.
What NEOH needs
Jeff Wade, chief of staff for Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, said problems with poor conditions and landlords who fail to fix them reflect a larger problem plaguing Northeast Ohio.
"There is a great need for affordable housing," Wade said. He said is it difficult for low-income families to find affordable, decent and safe housing in Northeast Ohio, in part because of the city's aging housing stock.
For example, Wade says there are approximately 30,000 families currently on the waiting list for the Housing Choice Voucher Program, just in Cuyahoga County.
"The voucher, for us, is what we refer to as a perpetual waiting list," he said.
GET HELP HERE: Legal Aid Society of Cleveland - housing resources
View this news coverage on News 5 Cleveland: Her landlord was supposed to make repairs. Instead, he evicted her.