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Federal eviction halt good news for strapped renters, bad news for landlords

Some Mahoning Valley courts never stopped eviction proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic, attorneys said. A new federal eviction moratorium, however, has drawn mixed reaction.
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(Morning Brew | Unsplash)

Though tenant advocates say a new temporary halt on evictions is sorely needed after previous legislative safeguards lapsed, one local housing provider feels the measure will likely create more problems than it solves.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sept. 1 used emergency health powers to enact a temporary federal moratorium on evictions nationwide, nearly 40 days after the previous moratorium included in the federal CARES Act expired. The new measure lasts until Dec. 31.

The CDC’s order cites a U.S. Census Bureau survey in which nearly a third of renters said they’d move in with friends or family if they were evicted, potentially spreading COVID-19 to new households. The CDC is empowered by statute to take such action when state or local health measures are “insufficient” in a public health emergency, according to the order.

The CDC estimated as many as 40 million Americans were at-risk of eviction after Aug. 1, the day August rent came due.

‘Business as usual’

John Petit, housing attorney manager for the nonprofit Community Legal Aid, which offers legal representation to low-income households, said his office has seen a recent spike in eviction cases in the Youngstown area since the CARES Act’s 120-day moratorium expired July 24.

“Since the federal moratorium ended, we were worried about our communities,” he said. “You’ve got all the smaller, regional courts that cover the areas around both Trumbull and Mahoning [counties] — a lot of those have been ‘business as usual’ with evictions. … Some of them didn’t really ever stop.”

Between June 2019 and August 2019, Petit’s office received 133 calls for help with evictions from Mahoning and Trumbull residents. Between those same months this year, it received 200.

Ohio has not enacted its own moratorium on evictions. A state order that took effect April 1 requesting landlords suspend rent payments or evictions for at least 90 days has also expired.

The Ohio Supreme Court let local courts decide whether to further delay eviction proceedings and, in a July report, recommended they establish evictions mediation programs and host settlement sessions.

Under the new moratorium, tenants must notify landlords of pandemic hardship by issuing a legal declaration, signed by all adults in the household, that shows:

  • The individual has used best efforts to obtain all available government assistance for rent or housing;
  • The individual either: expects to earn no more than $99,000 in 2020 (or $198,000 if filing a joint tax return); was not required to report 2019 income to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service; or received a stimulus check through the CARES Act;
  • The individual is unable to pay the full rent or make a full housing payment due to substantial loss of household income, loss of work hours or wages, a lay-off or extraordinary out-of-pocket medical expenses;
  • The individual is using best efforts to make timely partial payments that are as close to the full payment as possible while taking other necessary bills into account;
  • Eviction would likely render the individual homeless — or force the individual to move into and live in close quarters in a new group setting — because the individual has no other available housing options.

You can fill out the form on the Ohio Legal Help website.

The declaration acts as sworn legal testimony, meaning renters who use it may be prosecuted, jailed or fined for lying, misleading or omitting important information, according to the order.

The order only applies to evictions for nonpayment, not other lease violations, like noise or cleanliness. Tenants also will still be on the hook for the full amount of rent accrued during the moratorium.

There’s a lot tenants — and even attorneys — need to learn about the mechanics of the new federal order, Petit said.

He worries landlords may choose not to renew month-to-month leases — “I’ve already heard from some landlords that they plan to do that,” he said — or that landlords may find some other lease violations to use as improper pretenses in eviction proceedings. The CDC’s order only applies to evictions for nonpayment.

It’s also unclear how much in rent payments will be considered “as close to the full amount as possible,” or how the order affects tenants living off a fixed income, Petit said.

For tenants, Community Legal Aid is hosting a free, one-hour online clinic today at 4 p.m. on “what to expect” during an eviction, and tenants’ options.

Pre-registration is not required. Click here to join the clinic. To attend by phone, call 1-312-626-6799 and enter meeting ID 848-2069-2162.

‘Absolutely terrible idea’

Jeff Rickerman, president of the Mahoning Valley Real Estate Investors Association and also a housing provider, said he feels the moratorium leaves landlords holding the bill.

“I think it’s an absolutely terrible idea,” he told Mahoning Matters. “I don’t think it’s solving the problem at all. I think it creates many more problems than it solves.

“The federal government has absolutely no business sticking their nose into a private contract between two individuals.”

Rickerman said the association’s membership hasn’t seen the wave of evictions predicted after the moratorium expired.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, many landlords have stopped charging late fees, he said. And since the state’s lockdown in March, he and other landlords have been trying to communicate with tenants about their finances.

Rickerman said opening that line of communication is the first step — eviction is the last resort.

“When the communication is there, that’s when you can come up with solutions to the problems,” he said. “If the resident’s going to bury their head in the sand, not communicate, pretend there’s not a problem, that’s when there is a big problem.”

Youngstown-area housing provider Ian Andrews agreed it’s better to be open with your landlord — but in his experience, it’s more likely tenants offer little to no notice before they stop paying.

“In 12 years, I haven’t experienced a conscientious tenant who falls on hard times and presents a credible plan to catch up,” Andrews said. “However, I would always be willing to work with such a tenant rather than evict.”

Last week, Andrews said his handful of tenants were paid up for the month — in fact, they haven’t paid late in two years.

“Mahoning County rents are low by national standards, and have hardly moved for six years,” he said. “My impression is that rising numbers of evictions over unpaid rent is more an issue in bigger cities, such as Columbus.”

Rickerman said the association is advocating for rent subsidies to go directly to landlords — “without a whole bunch of strings attached” — instead of an eviction moratorium.

“We’re still responsible for all the things on our end of the contract,” he said, like security or repairs. “For most housing providers, they’re on a pretty razor-thin margin. … When you’ve paid everyone else that has to be paid each month, there’s not a whole lot left there. When someone’s paying short on the rent or not paying, you’re going into the negative extremely quickly.”

Instead, he foresees landlords going bust and banks clawing back properties, which may then sit vacant for a number of years.

“It’s just a bad idea all around,” Rickerman said.

He said tenants should instead look to take advantage of rental assistance programs in the area, offered locally by organizations like Catholic Charities, Salvation Army and Mahoning-Youngstown Community Action Program.

Petit said Community Legal Aid has connected with those agencies, but “there’s not been enough rental assistance out here to cover it.”

Tenants may apply for legal aid online or call Community Legal Aid’s Tenant Assistance Hotline at 330-983-2528 to speak with an attorney.

Here’s a list of agencies offering rent payment assistance programs in the Mahoning Valley, according to Help Network of Northeast Ohio:

Catholic Charities Regional Agency

Columbiana County
600 E. Fourth St., East Liverpool
330-385-4732 / 330-385-9327

Offers emergency utilities and eviction assistance. Call for more information.

Mahoning County homeless prevention program
319 W. Rayen Ave., Youngstown
330-744-3320 / 330-744-3677

Offers short-term rent assistance; case management for budgeting advice, referrals to other programs or relocation. Renters must have an income (including SS or SSI) and have a three-day eviction or court-ordered eviction.

Trumbull County homeless prevention program
175 Laird Ave., third floor, Warren
330-393-4254 / 330-393-4050

Offers short-term rent assistance; case management for budgeting advice, referrals to other programs or relocation. Renters must have an income (including SS or SSI) and have a three-day eviction or court-ordered eviction.
Rapid re-housing program helps the homeless find stable housing. Must have an income (including SS or SSI).
Call for more information.

Family and Community Services of Columbiana County

966 ½ N. Market St., Lisbon

Offers limited utilities and rent assistance to low-income households. Photo ID and proof of income required. Call to apply.

New Lisbon Presbyterian Church

111 E. Chestnut St., Lisbon
330-424-5107 / 330-271-5021

Offers emergency assistance with utilities and rent. Call for assistance.

Mahoning-Youngstown Community Action Program

1325 Fifth Ave., Youngstown
330-747-7921 / 330-480-9608

Offers rent assistance to households with income at or below 125 percent of federal poverty guidelines. Those facing eviction must provide proof they’re at least 30 days behind on payments. Limited calls are accepted each day, beginning at 9 a.m. Call for more information.

Salvation Army of Salem

1249 N. Ellsworth Ave., Salem
330-332-5624 / 330-337-8492

Offers utilities and rent assistance for Salem residents aged 62 years and older. Call for more information.

Salvation Army of Warren

270 Franklin St. SE, Warren
330-392-1573 / 330-393-4817

Offers utility assistance. Call for more information.

Trumbull Community Action Program

1230 Palmyra Road SW, Warren
330-393-2507 / 330-951-0051 / 330-393-4197

Offers assistance with rent or rent deposits. Photo ID, proof of citizenship (U.S. Passport; Social Security card; birth certificate; military records) are required. Must be a renter with a 3-day eviction or court-ordered eviction. Call for a phone interview.

Justin Dennis

About the Author: Justin Dennis

Justin Dennis has been on the beat since 2011, covering crime, courts and public education. Dennis grew up in Poland and Salem and studied journalism and communications at Cleveland State University and University of Pittsburgh.
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