by Noor Hindi and Doug Livingston

Sarah Zader talks about her life like a juggling act. 

Sober after years of methamphetamine use, the single mother pulled her three young children back from the foster care system. 

She found them a home in Akron’s Ellet neighborhood, in a row of apartments with a short front lawn overlooking the interstate. To make ends meet, she works two jobs while not only attending but leading recovery meetings.

“I’m trying to break the cycle with these guys,” Zader said of doing right by her kids. “It’s a struggle. It’s a blessing I get to be a mom today, and a sober one. I’m always tired. And I feel like I’m never enough. I feel inadequate. I can’t juggle enough, but I try my hardest.”

Then life tossed a couple more balls into the juggling act.

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Zader’s hours were cut. She fell behind on a few rent payments. Like thousands of tenants in Akron, she had no written lease agreement, according to her new landlord, who posted an eviction notice on her door in the middle of September.

At the order of President Donald Trump, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had just issued a moratorium on evictions for renters suffering during this pandemic and unable to pay the rent. She contacted Community Legal Aid and secured rental assistance.

But she said her landlord, Matt Kozub, wouldn’t accept it. Reached by phone, Kozub refused to comment on the matter.

At Zader’s Oct. 16 eviction hearing, Kozub’s Cleveland attorney made the case that he’s not interested in the late rent. The landlord wants to renovate and sell the apartments. Occupants in the way would have to go.

“We would end up in a shelter if I got evicted,” Zader said in an interview hours after the hearing. 

Four days after the hearing, the magistrate granted the eviction. Zader’s fate, and that of her children, is up in that jugging act again. While a pro-bono lawyer reviews her case, no motion has been filed yet to prevent her removal. 

Despite moratoriums and an improving economy, nearly 4 million struggling renters believe they’ll be evicted before Christmas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, which has been pumping out data every week or two during the pandemic.

The survey estimates 244,143 Ohioans are behind on their rent, of which 35% say eviction is somewhat or very likely in their near future. 

The CDC eviction moratorium, which extends to tenants who are unable to pay their rent because of COVID-19, has helped some get out of an eviction, but not others.

Akron Municipal Court has dismissed a number of cases due to incoming CARES Act funding. But this can sometimes be tricky. Funding doesn’t always apply to back rent that’s owed and doesn’t ensure the tenants ability to pay in the future.

Additionally, some tenants don’t know they qualify for the CDC moratorium. Most renters show up no lawyer. They may qualify for the moratorium, but by their court date, it’s too late to apply.

Landlords have found ways to get around the CDC moratorium by bringing non-COVID related cases to court, like the move to renovate Zader’s apartment. In month-to-month arrangements, landlords (and tenants) can end the lease with little notice and no reason at all.

And now the CDC moratorium, which expires Dec. 31, is being challenged in multiple federal courts, including here in the Northern District of Ohio.

Despite the limited moratorium, 811 evictions have been filed in Akron Municipal Court since March 27 when President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The law unleashed federal stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment and a 120-day eviction moratorium for renters getting government assistance and homeowners with federally backed mortgages.

Along with Akron, the municipal court covers Fairlawn; Lakemore, Richfield, Bath, Richfield Township, Springfield Township and parts of Mogadore.

Before the pandemic, evictions in the Akron area were on pace to eclipse numbers not seen since the Great Recession. There were more eviction cases filed in January (337) or February (285) of 2020 than in any of the previous 36 months.

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The first moratorium a statewide shutdown of civil cases until June stopped any looming eviction crisis in its tracks. From January and February to March and May, the evictions filings in the Akron Municipal Court went from record highs to record lows, according to data that covers most of the last four years.

Filings crept up in May as courts downloaded video conferencing software to tee up a backlog of cases. Then the filings fell again in September and October with the second moratorium taking effect. 

Still, renters are being evicted for reasons that aren’t always cut and dry.

Along with showing economic harm from COVID-19, whether from medical bills or loss of wages, tenants must first seek government assistance then prove to a judge that they paid what they could in rent before their declaration of eviction protection is granted. 

That last stipulation — proving they paid enough — has a woman in Portage County waiting to be tossed out of her apartment. She’s represented by John Petit, the managing attorney for Community Legal Aid’s housing and consumer programs. 

Petit said a judge in Kent was not convinced that the woman, who for a time made more on unemployment than she did working, set aside enough for rent. The eviction was granted but has been stayed while Petit challenges the judge’s rationale. 

The case is one of many that illustrates an uneven outcome for seemingly similar circumstances. 

“There continues to be inconsistency among the local courts with the application of the CDC moratorium,” said Petit, who works in eight counties and gave Akron judges the highest marks for fair application of the moratorium.

Also working against tenants is the virtual nature of the hearings.

The Devil Strip and Beacon Journal reporters who’ve watched dozens of virtual evictions witnessed a woman unable to log into Zoom. The magistrate gave her 10 minutes to troubleshoot then continued without her.

She needed to pick up her son from school, she argued after waiting more than an hour for her hearing to begin. Not being there almost always guarantees that the eviction will go through.

This woman was no exception.

The journalists, like everyone else, were stuck in digital waiting rooms or dropped from the video conferencing and, in at least one case, not permitted to return.

Plaintiffs and defendants are often left in Zoom’s waiting room for 30 minutes to an hour. Magistrates scramble like digital air traffic controllers — renaming accounts so tenants and lawyers can be identified later, helping attendees with poor connections get audio and video or encouraging them to position their cameras so they’re adequately sworn into court.

The court does allow people to come in and conduct their hearings using a court-provided laptop with the help of a bailiff. Under extreme difficulties, people can call in and argue their case over the phone.

“It’s horrible, this Zoom thing,” Zader said. “I had to have the judge repeat so much. I think I would have had more reassurance or understanding of what happened if I was in the courtroom.”

Doug Livingston (dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com) is a reporter at the Akron Beacon Journal and Noor Hindi (noor@thedevilstrip.com) is a reporter at The Devil Strip. This story is part of Home In Akron, a special reporting series by the Akron Media Collaborative. Journalists from the Akron Beacon Journal, The Devil Strip, WKSU, Your Voice Ohio, News Channel 5 and Reveal/The Center for Investigative Reporting are working together to explore the complex issues confronting Akron’s housing and rental markets and their impact on the people who live here.  

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