People holding signs saying Stop Evictions

Victoria Sadowski is a 26-year-old grad student at OSU who pays $975 in rent and fees for a single bedroom at Heritage Apartments in Grandview, an aging complex where hundreds live.

In comparison to some of the luxury apartments going up around town, Sadowski’s single bedroom is just about average, as long as you ignore the water damage and holes in the wall. 

Sadowski’s part-time job barely covers her monthly expenses – and now this, the pandemic’s grim fallout staring an entire generation of young renters (and many others) in the face.

Sadowski was hoping Heritage Apartments might be #InThisTogether and offer tenants a break. She inquired how they may help loyal tenants. Take several hundred off rent for the next several months, perhaps.

Afterall, Heritage Apartments is owned by Village Green Management Company, which has become one of the nation’s largest privately held apartment companies over its 100-year history.

In 2011, Village Green was acquired by Compatriot Capital, a real estate investment firm and a division of Sammons Enterprises, Inc, a diversified global holding company. Sammons Enterprises reaps $5 billion annually in revenue and currently holds $70 to $80 billion in assets, if not more.

In an email which the Free Press has read, Heritage Apartment’s pandemic sympathy to Sadowski was a $100 rent credit for May, but there was a catch. The offer would only be available if she renewed her lease for another year, and if she signed, they wouldn’t raise her rent.

“They should have brought the rent down or offered to work with tenants earlier on and regardless of whether they were going to renew their lease or not,” said Sadowski, who’s moving on from Heritage Apartments. “What they are saying is, ‘If you are willing to give us your money later on, we are willing to help you out.’ Tenants are just dollar signs to these people.”

Heritage Apartment manager Mike Carr said they have tried to work with pandemic strapped tenants by setting up payment plans and waiving late fees for May, but they haven’t made a decision yet on late fees for June.

The Free Press has been covering the looming local housing crisis since March and we know of not one institutionally-owned apartment complex, such as Heritage Apartments, which has offered any rent forgiveness. All we have heard from tenants is that all rent must be paid.

In 2017, the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard found that more than half of rental properties in the US were owned by “institutional investors” such as banks, funds, or corporations. This is where the local housing crisis could get ugly – 52 percent of Columbus residents are renters. And institutional owners not only want their money, but unlike mom-and-pop landlords, they have the money to evict large numbers of tenants.

It’s no surprise predictions of a “tsunami” of Central Ohio residents being set out by landlords and law enforcement have been rumbling for weeks. Eviction hearings for Franklin County resume this Monday, June 1st at the courtroom-triaged Convention Center, but so far a tsunami has not materialized.

Evictions waiting to be heard in front of a Franklin County judge are estimated around 1,200, which is not a significant spike. But keep in mind these are 1,200 households, so times that by 3 to 5 when it comes to our neighbors.

Even if the eviction tsunami has not hit, two high-profiled local nonprofits – IMPACT Community Action and the Community Shelter Board – strongly believe it will within the coming months.

“Make no mistake, a storm is coming our way,” said IMPACT Community Action’s CEO Robert ‘Bo’ Chilton during a Mayor Ginther press conference on May 14th. “Right now, we have 1,200 evictions…we know that there are going to be many more coming once the moratorium is lifted on June 1st.”

“We are definitely concerned about the surge that is going to happen,” said Community Shelter Board spokesperson Sara Loken to the Free Press.

Our City government is taking swift action to stem off evictions, but have they so far allocated enough money?

City Council recently accepted $157 million in CARES Act funding, and $3 million was slated for housing. From this, IMPACT Community Action received $2.65 million to provide rental assistance, and the Legal Aid Society received $250,000 to provide five additional attorneys for the eviction courts at the Convention Center. It should be noted Franklin County commissioners have also approved an additional $2.6 million in housing funds and hope to re-coup this money from CARES act funding.

Nevertheless, City Council member Shayla Favors – tasked with managing the housing crisis – told the Free Press there’s going to be a need for more rental assistance.

“We know that $3 million is not nearly enough to tackle these problems,” said Favor. “Our next step will be to develop a long-term program to see us through the end of this year as we anticipate a second wave.”

Favor says she has concerns when the eviction courts re-open June 1st, “as it is likely more landlords will pursue eviction filings.”

Franklin County judges and the Ohio Supreme Court have the ultimate say on courts re-opening, and it was Franklin County Judge Ted Barrows, after consulting with administrators and other judges, who made the decision to re-open the eviction courts so to adhere to the law and the needs of civil litigants.

“We’ve been closed for two months. The court process needs to go on – if that is harsh, I am sorry,” Judge Barrows told the Free Press. “Civil cases are between two parties and we are simply a neutral referee. As much I would like to rule in favor of someone who is experiencing trying times I must remain neutral.”

Barrows continued, “This is a struggle between my heart and my head. I have advocated for the downtrodden when I was a public defender. But as a judge I have to apply the law. The court has cranked up its mediation services. We are working with IMPACT Community Action to reach out to as many as these people as we can.”

Favor continues to lobby the Central Ohio congressional delegation for more federal rental assistance. But why must our local government be so stressed to help billionaire landlords? Why must our government print money for rental assistance? Why can’t billionaire institutional apartment owners give their tenants a break on rent?

“They need to be suspending and forgiving rent and mortgage payments and putting a freeze on evictions and foreclosures,” says Andrew who initiated the Rent Strike Columbus Facebook page. Andrew, who did not want to offer his last name, is an active member of the progressive activist group Columbus Socialist Alternative.

“We need to not underestimate the wealth disparity there is,” said the 29-year-old. “Why do we live in a system where there’s more empty homes than homeless people?”

As for local Rent Strikes, Andrew admits a mass strike has not gained traction, even as the Columbus Tenants’ Union has never pushed harder for a mass strike. But things could change rapidly.

“There’s a general mood of anger, but the conditions aren’t still right for a broader sort of movement,” says Andrew. “There’s a generalized mood of anger in Columbus, but we need to push for more. Something could happen in the next weeks and months that could spark that. We may not see a huge Rent Strike until later on.”

Not advocating for a Rent Strike is the landlord lobbyist effort and PAC the Columbus Apartment Association or CAA, which by the way gave City Council member Favor $1,000 in 2019, according to an Ohio Campaign Finance Report. The Free Press could find no record the CAA has given to Judge Barrows over the previous ten years.

The CAA may not support a mass Rent Strike, but they have been working with both Favor and IMPACT Community Action over the recent weeks distributing rental assistance to tenants.

The association represents both institutional and mom-and-pop apartment owners. Dimitri Hatzifotinos, a local attorney and spokesperson for the CAA, says the association represents one local institutional landlord who manages 10,000 apartments, for example.

“There’s a lot of people that rent in Columbus compared to people that own,” said Hatzifotinos. “The large landlords who are members of the apartment association have done absolutely everything they can to work with tenants who can’t pay their rent, to waive late fees, to waive any other fees, to find access to aide like organizations like IMPACT, in order to keep tenants housed. For the people that I interact with, landlords are working with their tenants to keep them housed and not evicted much more than normally.”

The apartment industry as a whole, says Hatzifotinos, has been “telling its members that late fees should be waived and that tenants should be given forbearance in order to try to make payments as they can with the ideas they can get caught up until June.”

Hatzifotinos said the association does also advocate for tenants. We asked him if it was fair that Victoria Sadowski of Heritage Apartments was offered a one-time $100 forgiveness only if she were to renew her lease for another year. The Free Press has also heard from many tenants who said their landlord is asking for too much proof of income and finances before allowing a payment plan.

“The association is not a group that would reprimand an individual landlord for a business practice,” he said. “I don’t reprimand anyone. I am not a court. That’s not what the purpose of what a trade association is.”

Sadowski this week asked Heritage Apartments if they would be charging late fees for June, which would be an extra $50.

“They told me they will likely be collecting for June since ‘Ohio is re-opening and everyone is back to work,’” she said.