By Doug Livingston, Akron Beacon Journal, and Noor Hindi, The Devil Strip
On Voris Street in Akron’s University Park neighborhood, 37-year-old Terrance Langston signed a land contract last year, assuming all responsibility for repairing a home he hopes to someday own.
Since March when the government began shutting down the economy in response to the coronavirus pandemic, he’s struggled to find enough work to sustain his personal construction business.
But he’s not being evicted because he’s behind on rent. He said his landlord is kicking him out over a souring personal and professional relationship.
With nowhere to go, Langston plans to live in his van.
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In an apartment on Neville Avenue in nearby East Akron, Army veteran Roger Carr is also facing eviction. He’s tried twice to mail money orders to his landlord. But each time, he said, the money orders never got to his landlord.
Carr has no better plan than Langston to go if tossed out on the street. He doesn’t even know how to attend his virtual eviction hearing Friday in Akron Municipal Court, which is being conducted via Zoom.
Langston and Carr are among the hundreds of Akron residents facing eviction this month.
Some may benefit from a moratorium announced Tuesday by the White House. Others, including Carr and Langston, will not.
The public health order, drafted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent the spread of the coronavirus by keeping people in their homes, is being lauded by advocates who defend tenants in these tough times. Landlords denied their day in court call it “a kick in the face.”
The new federal moratorium, which replaces another that expired July 25, requires tenants to prove financial hardship linked to the coronavirus, whether from loss of work or medical expenses. That disqualifies Carr because he continues to collect his Social Security, which is uninterrupted by the pandemic.
Unlike the previous moratorium, which covered only tenants in publicly subsidized housing, this broader moratorium is extended to almost anyone, so long as they’re facing eviction due to non-payment of rent.
This disqualifies Langston. He’s being tossed out over a dispute, not late rent.
Still, housing advocates say the new moratorium as sorely needed, especially as Congress has failed to pass a new stimulus package to kept struggling renters afloat or protect them from evictions.
“It’s a real welcome relief, I think. And somewhat unexpected,” said John Petit, managing attorney for Community Legal Aid’s housing and consumer programs.
“I heard the president talking weeks ago about stopping evictions. I thought it was just lip service,” Petit said. “But the CDC came through with this moratorium, and I think it will help a lot of people.”
Evictions are down this year. Petit and landlords say tenants have managed to pay rent with cash assistance, including enhanced federal unemployment benefits and $1,200 stimulus checks. Local and federal moratoriums are also keeping the number of eviction filings down.
But Petit’s agency is receiving a record number of calls for tenants seeking financial help. And he cautioned that, unlike the old moratorium, the new rules allow landlords to pile on late fees until the rent is paid or the moratorium ends on Dec. 31.
Jim Laria, clerk of the Akron Municipal Court, said evictions will continue to be filed during the CDC’s moratorium. Magistrates will take each eviction on a case-by-case basis.Tenants must show up and claim protection under the new moratorium. It will not be extended automatically.
The Akron Municipal Court, which serves Akron, Fairlawn, Bath, Richfield, Springfield, Lakemore, Richfield and the Summit County side of Mogadore, has averaged 300 eviction filings monthly for the past three years.
Most involve properties in Akron, which has one of the highest eviction rates in the country, according to a recent Princeton University study.
2020 began with the same troubling trend: 337 evictions filed in January and another 285 in February. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Courts shut down. Federal aid went out. And the first national moratorium, which was extended by a local order in Akron, went into effect.
Eviction filings dropped to 96 in March then 81 in April before steadily rebounding to 160 in August.
Housing advocates expect September to be tough — for landlords and tenants.
Many tenants have exhausted their $1,200 federal stimulus checks, they say. With Congress failing to pass another stimulus, the White House is extending federal unemployment benefits, but at $300 a week instead of the $600 unemployed workers were getting.
And more than $6 million in funding from the federal CARES Act, which flowed through the county, was quickly gobbled up by more than 3,500 applicants seeking help with rent and mortgages.
But the money has been slow to reach those in need.
Greta Johnson, chief of staff for County Executive Ilene Shapiro, said the Summit County CARES program has distributed $1,150,000 in grants to renters and $87,000 for those behind on a mortgage. About $5 million more has yet to go out.
The county is still processing applications. Early release of funds has been targeted for applicants facing eviction, not just behind on rent or their mortgage.
The program relies on banks and landlords to participate. Johnson said a plan to directly deposit the funds into landlords’ bank accounts didn’t work out, so the United Way is cutting checks. But the postal service is behind. Some checks have taken three weeks to arrive, Johnson said.
The county is considering putting more CARES Act and local funding into the Summit CARES Program, which will start taking more applications later this month, Johnson said.
Meanwhile, landlords are criticizing the new moratorium as “an extreme overreach of authority,” as local landlord John Franks put it.
Terry Dotson, a landlord who manages 147 apartments with his wife, said he’s filed fewer evictions in the past few months than before the pandemic, because his tenants have been flush with federal cash and the Summit County CARES money was there to fill any gaps.
“It’s starting to go the other way now that they’ve got their stimulus checks and spent them and the Summit County cares program ended,” Dotson said of a few tenants slipping on their rent checks.
“I got tenants who are starting to fall behind again,” he said, “and nothing to pull them out this time.”