Woman outside in a yard full of furniture after eviction

With eviction filings for Franklin County spiking in late March and early April, local housing advocates agree a “tsunami” of evictions will hit Columbus and the rest of the state if Governor DeWine and the Ohio congressional delegation do not act.

A wave of evictions for Franklin County this summer could be a foregone conclusion. 

Even before the pandemic, the county’s eviction court was one of the busiest in the state, averaging 75 hearings or cases a day and around 17,000 per year, according to the Legal Aid Society of Columbus. 

City Council member Shayla Favor has been tasked with the looming housing crisis. She told the Free Press her top priority is making sure Columbus residents are able to stay in their homes. 

“I have learned that there was a drop in April rent payments, (and) that many property managers and nonprofits expect these numbers to drop further in May,” Favor said. “I believe adamantly that rental assistance will be key to helping stabilize families during this time. I am advocating to the entire Ohio congressional delegation that rental assistance must be included in future (stimulus) packages. Local municipalities and states will not be able to provide these resources on our own.”

There is a growing consensus it does not make sense for landlords to evict large numbers of tenants – evictions cost money and demand for apartments is down. Favor said she is imploring landlords to work with their tenants.

“I’ve heard from some landlords who have openly stated that they will not evict anyone as a result of COVID-19, but I know there are many that will not do the same,” she said.

The number of renters in Columbus is estimated at 460,000, or 55 percent of the population, with the number of renters increasing 17 percent since the Great Recession. For all of Ohio the number of renters is close to 3.5 million.

Stimulus money and unemployment should help, but many agree Columbus was already dealing with an affordable housing shortage, with the average cost of rent increasing 4 percent annually since 2015.

A small percentage of low-income Americans receive federal housing assistance, but experts agree around 40 percent of all renters are low income and many could now be out of work. 

While evictions are still being filed in Frank County, eviction hearings – when a court can decide whether a tenant can legally be set out – are suspended in Franklin County until June 1st. 

Even so, the Columbus-based Ohio Poverty Law Center (OPLC) in a report released this week stated Gov. DeWine and his administration need to act now to stave off thousands from being homeless late this year. 

Ohio received $4.5 billion from the CARES Act, and after healthcare workers, bed capacity, and respirators have been adequately supplied, some of this money should be used to create a broad-based rental assistance program, advises the OPLC.

The good news is, says the OPLC, only a fraction of the $4.5 billion so far has been requested for the front-line healthcare needs.

“The first priority for that money is to ensure the healthcare system has the resources it needs,” said OPLC director Susan Jagers. “We think a portion of that money could go to rental assistance, as well. One of our recommendations is the DeWine administration convene a work group for that.”

The OPLC report states Ohio is one of only six states to not address evictions on a statewide basis. Meaning some counties are still having evictions hearings and renters are being set out. Indeed, this in part prompted The Eviction Lab at Princeton University to give Ohio a .58 out of 5 score in its COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard.

Ohio landlords can still file and give notice of eviction (3-day notice sticker). Police can enforce evictions for nonpayment in counties still holding hearings. The Ohio Public Utilities Commission has not issued an order prohibiting the disconnection of electric, gas and water.

In comparison, Princeton gave Massachusetts a 4.15 out of 5. Landlords cannot start an eviction for nonpayment of rent until August 18th. They cannot file for an eviction either. Rent still must be paid but can be delayed until August 18th. The state’s utility commission has ordered electric, gas and water cannot be shut off due to failure to pay bills. 

“The main reason Ohio was ranked so low is because there isn’t a statewide approach and that some courts are still holding eviction hearings and other courts [such as Franklin County] are not allowing eviction hearings,” said Jager. 

She says every community has a different structure for emergency housing funds. “There’s already systems in place,” she says, “and these organizations on the ground could be part of the distribution of money.”

Franklin County Commissioners have acted, approving $250,000 for the Ohio Hispanic Coalition to provide rent assistance to Spanish-speaking residents. The county also offered one-time $500 assistance checks provided by the state’s TANF (Temporary Aid for Needy Families) fund but those checks were exhausted in 24 hours.

The Legal Aid Society of Columbus (LASC), which can provide legal services for low-income individuals facing a civil matter only, says they have heard from Franklin County court clerk of local landlords illegally removing tenants.

“If anyone who is in that situation, where a landlord has thrown their things out, has changed the locks, has tried to turn off their utilities – I have heard rumors of landlords of taking doors off of people’s homes – that is 100 percent illegal, a violation of landlord-tenant law,” says LASC attorney Melissa Benson. “They should be contacting the police non-emergency line. The Columbus police are aware of this and are reasonably good at responding to this.”

Benson says after calling the police, then call the LASC (614-224-8374 or 614-241-2001). 

“Please, please call us,” says Benson, “if we have the right evidence and the right information we can get an emergency court order to restore access to property.”

And once the pandemic passes and the courts re-open, the LASC has team members and a clinic within Franklin County eviction courtrooms potential clients can turn to, adds Benson.

City Council member Favor says the city also has a hotline for tenants being illegally evicted (614-645-5650).

“It’s important for tenants to know that they cannot be evicted from their homes right now without a hearing,” says Favor. “I have been convening regular meetings with housing partners across the city to get a better understanding of their top concerns and needs during this time. My focus has been on preparing for a surge in evictions.” 

The City of Columbus has prepared two resource sheets, one for tenants and one for landlords:

Recommendations and resources to help guide tenants and landlords facing challenges related to COVID-19. An FAQ for landlords can be found here, while a tenant FAQ can be found here. If a tenant feels they are being informally evicted, or their eviction is being served as a retaliatory action, please call Todd Dillard at 614-645-5650.