People at eviction court

“Five days isn’t enough time,” said a tearful Latosha Aaron-Gavin outside the temporary eviction courtroom at the Columbus Convention Center on a recent overcast morning. 

The judge, while holding up the bright orange five-day set-out sticker, in a robotic tone had just told the 35-year-old mother her landlord was going to soon place the sticker on her front door.

Aaron-Gavin’s landlord is LINK Real Estate of Upper Arlington, which “proudly”endorsed City Council’s recent declaration that racism is a public health crisis.

“They’ve been telling me they just want their money, but they don’t care that my apartment floods every time it rains,” said Aaron-Gavin, who’s recent Amazon delivery job didn’t pan out.

She was also unable to receive unemployment and her stimulus check was used for March and April’s rent. She said she has paid rent to LINK for two years.

She wiped away another tear. “The pandemic put me here…”

With eviction and utility moratoriums coming to end, along with the extra $600-a-week in federal unemployment, the future looks grim – as if we needed to keep echoing potential pandemic fallout nightmares.

But how bad could it get? Some feel Columbus may be more resilient than other communities, even though experts have called Columbus one of the most economically segregated cities in the nation.

Perhaps a recent letter penned by over 18 nonprofits, such as the Ohio Poverty Law Center, to Gov. DeWine is hinting at what could be.

The letter is urging DeWine to distribute an unspent $1.3 billion in state Coronavirus Relief Funds for emergency rental assistance and food because the “emergency needs are immediately pressing”.

Across from the Convention Center’s eviction courtroom the poverty fighting IMPACT Community Action nonprofit is taking applications for tenants needing rental assistance. IMPACT told the Free Press they have been paying landlords like never before.

“We’ve done this for 12 years, providing rental assistance. We’ve probably handed out six times the amount (from last July compared to this July),” says Kay Wilson, spokesperson for IMPACT.

Predictably, eviction filings are now spiking, she says. Partly because there’s a backlog due to the eviction moratorium. In June there were 3,000 eviction filings in Franklin County waiting to be heard.

“They didn’t just move it to the Convention Center because they wanted social distancing, it’s because they clearly saw how many filings were there,” said Wilson.

The CARES Act eviction protections expired last weekend (July 25th), which covered most federally financed and sponsored rentals and mortgages.

Rachel Wenning, a local attorney and member of the Columbus Tenants’ Union (CTU), says if Congress doesn’t extend the protections another wave of eviction filings will hit at the end of August and into September.

“Covered properties can now give out 30-day move-out notices to tenants,” says Wenning. “There are many large apartment complexes covered by the CARES Act which haven’t filed evictions for nonpayment of rent in months, because they weren’t permitted to. The only way to really gauge how many they plan to file would be to find out how many 30-day notices they are sending now, but that’s not public info.”

Overall, the number of renters in Columbus is estimated at 460,000, or 55 percent of the population. According to the Greater Ohio Policy Center’s Ohio Affordable Housing Learning Exchange, an estimated 700,000 Ohio renters could face eviction this year.

Besides several shaved-headed Columbus police officers and an army of fancy-suited landlord (set-out) attorneys, the Free Press saw plenty of help for those in need at the Convention Center. The Legal Aid Society of Columbus has also set up a desk just outside the courtrooms.

“It was very emotional. I saw a number of people fighting back tears,” says Legal Aid Society spokesperson Melissa Dutton. “There were a lot of people who had never been in a scenario like this. People who had always worked and just were not able to because of the COVID, and this was definitely a new situation for them. There was a lot concern and worry and fear about the future.”

Dutton says low-income renters struggle to find safe, affordable housing under the best of circumstances.

“An eviction on a tenant’s record serves as an additional barrier to finding housing,” she says. “Tenants who are struggling to pay rent will likely have a difficult time coming up with first and last month’s rent or other upfront deposits that a landlord requires, making the transition to another home even more difficult.”

Wilson of IMPACT says they’ve been dealing with some good landlords and some landlords whose hearts are as cold as winter ice.

“We’ve dealt with an incredible amount of landlords who have been agreeable,” says Wilson. “We’ve also heard from some people telling us stories that their landlord had took their front door off. Me personally I heard two of these stories.”