by Noor Hindi, The Devil Strip and Doug Livingston, The Akron Beacon Journal
On Friday, following a COVID-19 exposure in the Harold K. Stubbs Justice Center, Akron Municipal Court sent out a press release postponing all eviction hearings until Jan. 1.
The new rule would have immediately halted a number of evictions scheduled through the end of the year, including dozens scheduled for this week.
But just days after the suspension went into effect, Akron Municipal Court said Wednesday it would be resuming virtual eviction hearings, changing course from its original decision.
- Virtual eviction hearings continue despite moratoriums
- Landlords align to overturn eviction moratorium
The revision allows cases to go through, but only if both the tenant and the landlord appear. Tenants often miss their eviction hearings. If they do appear, they often show up without lawyers, making it difficult for them to win their case.
Virtual eviction hearings will resume Thursday.
The revised rule means the court cannot rule against a tenant who misses a hearing before Jan. 1. It does, however, allow the court to rule against a tenant who shows up to court and fails to defend their case.
It is unclear why Akron Municipal Court decided to move forward with the evictions, despite expressing a serious safety concern on Friday.
In a Tuesday email, Nicole Hagy, Court spokesperson, told The Devil Strip that eviction hearings scheduled for Nov. 16 and Nov. 17 were cancelled “as we formulated the best course of action, therefore no evictions have been granted. Those hearings will be rescheduled allowing the parties the right to their eviction hearing.”
On Monday, Akron Municipal Court’s docket of scheduled hearings on their website was not updated to reflect these changes. The website was down for most of Tuesday.
Magistrates have been watching for tenants and landlords who, despite the Friday evening announcement, tried to attend their previously scheduled hearing. Hagy said anyone confused about the status of a case or having trouble with the virtual format should call the clerk’s office at 330-375-2920.
Hagy said any evictions granted on or before Nov. 13 will be served.
The Friday announcement came amid record numbers of COVID-19 cases in Ohio.
Hagy says the court felt the “need to take such drastic action given the number of people who enter our building each day.” Hagy would not elaborate on who or how many people had come into contact with COVID-19.
“We were informed of COVID-19 exposure in the building but have no other information,” she said. “The exposure was not judicial employees but did impact services provided on the court floors.”
Landlords were on pace to file record numbers of evictions in 2020 before the pandemic forced Akron Municipal Court, which covers Akron, Bath, Fairlawn, Lakemore, Mogadore, Richfield and Springfield, to shut down in March. A congressionally approved eviction moratorium that ended in July and an ongoing moratorium issued by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in September that halted some proceedings have since pushed eviction filings to their lowest levels since the end of the housing crisis.
With federal rent assistance still flowing for tenants who’ve lost wages due to the pandemic, the court had hoped that many eviction cases would resolve themselves as tenants caught up on rent. If not, low-income housing advocates feared that tenants already struggling before the pandemic would be forced into living situations that could further fuel this third wave of COVID-19 cases, which is the worst yet.
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The Ohio Housing Finance Agency, which focuses on affordable housing, estimates that 18,723 rental units in Summit County — 24.3% of all renters — spend more than half their income on rent. The majority of these severely “rent-burdened” tenants live in Akron, according to U.S. Census data.
“When you know that number, even before COVID and as we know so many people working were laid off or had their hours reduced, they’re the ones facing evictions and that’s the pool of people we’re concerned about that are at risk of homelessness,” warned Marcus Roth with the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio.
John Petit at Community Legal Aid, a not-for-profit that defends tenants at no cost, says decisions to dismiss evictions that fall under the CDC moratorium incentivize landlords and tenants to resolve non-payment of rent on their own. So far, Legal Aid has been able to get roughly 150 evictions dismissed or not filed through these tenant assistance programs.
With Congress failing to pass another relief package and moratoriums expiring, Petit welcomed the local court’s initial move to suspend all hearings until the New Year as his office prepares for a glut of cases in January.
In the November release of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, an estimated 241,512 Ohioans were behind on their rent. Of these struggling renters, 35% believe eviction is somewhat or very likely before the end of the year. The picture is worse for young adults, who are more likely to rent.
Among the 96,983 struggling renters between the ages of 25 and 39 in Ohio, the Census Bureau estimates that 69,634, or 72%, think an eviction could come before the New Year.
Between the expiration of the CDC moratorium and the delay in local hearings, the court in Akron could face an overwhelming number of eviction filings in January.
“I think it’s important to show that there is this pending problem,” said Roth, who added that instead of going to a homeless shelter when evicted, most tenants “double up with other families and do what it takes to find a place to live.”
For landlords whose cases have been dismissed, the court is allowing them to refile in January at no extra cost.
Landlord John Franks, who owns around two dozen properties in Akron, said he believes the recent eviction protections for tenants have been unfair to landlords.
“It’s my right to evict somebody if they don’t pay me. It’s my legal right,” Franks said.
Between now and Jan. 1, community advocates urge tenants to contact United Way of Summit and Medina or Community Action Akron Summit by calling 2-1-1 for rental assistance funds.
Akron Beacon Journal reporters Doug Livingston (email@example.com) and Krista Kano contributed to this report. Noor Hindi (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers equity and inclusion for 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.