Freshwater Cleveland: Government, nonprofits working to prevent wave of evictions in Cleveland

Government, nonprofits working to prevent wave of evictions in Cleveland

CONOR MORRIS 

As Cleveland Municipal Court’s Housing Court reopened last Monday, June 15, after a three-month moratorium on evictions, a tidal wave of evictions may be coming.

Upcoming rental assistance programs from the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County—with about $17 million total in available aid—should help tenants struggling financially.

But some officials question whether it will be enough to keep people in their homes during a pandemic that has sent Ohio’s unemployment rate skyrocketing

At least 400 eviction hearings were rescheduled in March when the pandemic hit, and Ohio courts closed.

Cleveland clerk of courts spokesperson Obed Shelton says at least 352 additional new eviction cases were filed last week when the court reopened.

The number of cases is higher than normal, but not as high as some experts were predicting.

Cleveland Housing Court Judge W. Moná Scott recently told an Ideastream reporter that some landlords might be choosing to wait for housing assistance to be available from the city and Cuyahoga County before they start eviction proceedings.

Abigail Staudt, managing attorney with the housing group for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, says that before COVID-19, an average of 35 eviction cases were filed each day in housing court, but she says she expects to see that number increase now.

“We know some landlords that are proactively working with their tenants but there are others who [were] probably waiting for the courts to open,” says Staudt.

 Cuyahoga County in April saw the unemployment rate jump to 23.5% (the sixth highest of any county in Ohio), overwhelming the state’s unemployment system—suggesting that many people have missed at least one rental payment during the pandemic.

Additionally, the Federal $600 weekly aid checks to unemployed workers will end in July.

In early June, both Cuyahoga County executive Armond Budish and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson that in July they will launch new rental-assistance programs to help people catch up on rental payments they’ve missed during the pandemic.

The county will be rolling out its $6.8 million rental-assistance program starting today, Wednesday, July 1, with $5 million coming from the Federal CARES Act.

Budish and Paul Herdeg, the county’s deputy chief economic development officer, explained that the program issues checks to landlords who rent to low-income tenants.

The check will cover up to three months of back rent, which Herdeg says averages about $2,400.

Herdeg says the property owner will have to show proof that the tenant is behind in rent, as well as proof of a job loss, small business closure, or some other complication related to the pandemic.

Cleveland is preparing to roll out a similar $11.3 million rental-assistance program beginning Wednesday, July 15. Applications will be accepted starting today, Wednesday, July 1. Residents can apply online or A hotline has been set up for residents with questions. The hotline is (833) 377-RENT (7368). 

Jackson announced the program as part of the city’s $19.3 million Restart CLE plan.

Both the city and county programs also require families receiving assistance to be within a certain income guideline, starting at 120% or less of the region’s median income for one portion of the county’s funds ($90,000 for a family of four).

Both programs have funding available for families living at 80% or less of the area median income ($60,000 for a family of four), as well.

The city in a statement said it’s expecting an estimated 5,000 households to get three months of rental assistance, while the city is expecting 1,500 households to receive extended, long-term assistance of up to nine months.

Budish acknowledges the Cuyahoga County’s assistance alone will not be enough to help low-income and other residents struggling during the pandemic.

In cities across the country, rental-assistance programs announced during the pandemic have run dry within days or even hours.

Houston’s $15 million fund, for instance, ran dry two hours after its application portal opened back in May. In places like Philadelphia, city governments are asking for private donations to bolster their rental-assistance programs after they ran out of funds.

The county and city rental assistance programs will be administered through a joint effort led by nonprofit CHN Housing Partners, working with Cleveland nonprofit EDEN Inc. Both organizations had their own pre-pandemic rental-assistance programs.

While the new programs are not yet implemented, Laura Boustani, strategic communication manager with CHN, says that people in need of assistance should call 211, the United Way of Greater Cleveland’s helpline, to get into the queue to receive services when the programs begin.

Graham Bowman, attorney with the Ohio Poverty Law Center, says local rental-assistance programs like those in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County “need backup from either the state or federal sources.”

Ohio doesn’t have a pandemic-related rental- assistance program and it’s expecting a $2.4 billion budget shortfall alone in the coming fiscal year starting on July 1 as the coronavirus shreds sales and income tax collection.

Bowman’s organization, and 180-plus other statewide advocacy and other organizations (including landlord groups), have joined the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio (COHHIO) to sign onto a letter calling on Ohio Governor Mike DeWine to use $100 million in federal CARES Act funds to create a statewide rental-assistance programs.

Long-term federal solutions have mostly stalled. Ohio senator Sherrod Brown and several other lawmakers introduced legislation in early May to create a $100 billion emergency rental assistance program, and that bill was included in the $3 trillion HEROES stimulus bill still awaiting approval.

Legal Aid Society’s Staudt says her agency is significantly increasing its staffing—an initiative that started before the pandemic in preparation for Cleveland’s new right to counsel law.

Landlord-tenant mediation is another service that could stem the tide of evictions, Staudt says. Danielle Cosgrove, director of the Cleveland Mediation Center, says they plan to provide landlord-tenant mediation services to more than 500 additional clients, thanks to funding through the Restart CLE program

Staudt says she hopes that both the right to counsel law and mediation will offer short-term solutions toward keeping people in their homes.