The smell of smoke burns Virginia LaForce’s nostrils. There’s a bonfire raging in her backyard. She can hear the sound of her Siberian husky, Caesar, running through the snow.
LaForce’s family wasn’t enjoying a bonfire on a cold winter afternoon, anticipating the taste of warm s’mores melting in their mouths. They were burning their belongings before their eviction date.
On Jan. 29, LaForce and her husband, William Hershey, learned they would be evicted from their home. On a teary Zoom call with Akron Municipal Court Magistrate Kani Hightower, the couple pleaded for more time in their home.
“For the first time in my life, I feel out of control. I can’t do anything,” LaForce says.
Ten years ago, LaForce and Hershey fell in love with the three-bedroom home on a dead-end street in Kenmore. LaForce envisioned the playground she would purchase for her grandson and the ample backyard space for Caesar to run in.
When LaForce and Hershey entered into a rent-to-own agreement with their landlord, they couldn’t have imagined that, a decade later, they’d be burning their memories to the ground in a last-ditch attempt to get rid of everything.
“I got diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in June of 2015,” LaForce says. “They gave me 9 to 18 months to live. Since then, it’s gone from my lungs to my lymph nodes to my esophagus to my brain.”
After breaching their rent-to-own contract in 2015 following LaForce’s cancer diagnosis, they began renting the Kenmore house rather than working to own it.
Today, both LaForce and Hershey are battling stage four lung cancer; Hershey was diagnosed in June 2020. Over the winter, the couple has been balancing doctor’s appointments, the threat the pandemic poses to their health and now, an eviction.
“Neither one of us has gone back to our treatments. We have literally put everything on hold to move out. I’m very, very slow compared to what I used to be. This packing and trying to clean out the basement and load the cars is too much,” LaForce says. “My motto in this house the last week has been, ‘Throw it away, throw it away, throw it away. We don’t have time.’”
LaForce and Hershey are among hundreds of people who have been evicted from their homes in Akron since the start of the pandemic. In fact, between March 9 and Oct. 26, 2020, Akron Municipal Court granted more than 350 evictions.
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The Centers for Disease Control eviction moratorium protects renters who are unable to pay their rent due to the pandemic. Announced in September 2020, it has been extended through March 2021.
But because LaForce and Hershey were getting evicted because their landlord was selling the house, and not because of nonpayment of rent, they didn’t qualify for the moratorium.
The couple’s landlords, Kevin Cooper and Jamie Rea, brought the case to Akron Municipal Court on Jan. 22. Before their initial hearing, LaForce says she was in contact with three lawyers. They all assured her that they wouldn’t be evicted since the eviction filing was for nonpayment of rent, qualifying them for the CDC moratorium.
On Jan. 22, the case was continued because LaForce had signed a CDC declaration, stating that they were unable to pay their rent because of the pandemic. The landlord present claimed he wasn’t aware of the moratorium.
Cooper and Rea did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Just one week later, LaForce, Hershey and their landlords were back in court. Rea claimed he was evicting the couple because he’d sold the house, successfully sidestepping the moratorium.
‘I didn’t think this could happen’
The Devil Strip has watched more than 100 hours of eviction hearings since the start of the pandemic. In cases where the tenants attend to advocate for themselves in court, many mention being affected by the pandemic. Some have fallen prey to the illness, while others have been either laid off from their jobs or had their hours cut, leading them to fall behind on rent.
Despite qualifying for the protections the CDC moratorium offers, some tenants are still evicted. Some don’t know they qualify. Others don’t realize they need to sign the declaration form and submit it to court before their eviction hearing. If they show up to court without the declaration, it’s already too late.
That was the case for Shalandra Jeffries.
At her Jan. 7 hearing, Jeffries explained to the magistrate that her hours at a factory in Cuyahoga Falls had been cut because of COVID-19. Despite technically qualifying for the protections the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention offers, Jeffries was unaware she needed to bring a declaration to court.
“I didn’t think this could happen,” says Jeffries. “They’re on the news saying, ‘We’re stopping evictions, we’re stopping evictions.’ They didn’t say you need to go qualify. They just said ‘We’re stopping evictions.’ I was thinking this can’t happen.’”
Though Jefffries was able to secure rental assistance through United Way after her hearing and prevent her eviction, some, like LaForce and Hershey, aren’t so lucky.
Through CARES Act funding, United Way has been able to give more than $9 million to more than 2,600 renters in Akron. Akron Summit Community Action, in collaboration with Summit County Job and Family Services, has given out about $4.5 million to help people with rent, mortgage payments and utility bills.
Marie Curry, managing attorney at Community Legal Aid, says renters who’ve had eviction cases filed during the pandemic could face long-term consequences even if their cases were ultimately dismissed because of the moratoriums. Records of those hearings could prevent future landlords from wanting to rent to them.
In December 2019, Akron Municipal Court considered a policy change known as Rule 39. The rule would have offered renters whose eviction cases have been dismissed the option of sealing their record. This would have been particularly helpful during the pandemic, as a number of cases have been dismissed due to the moratorium.
The Devil Strip requested copies of all public comments submitted to Akron Municipal Court regarding Rule 39. The motion was supported by United Way, Community Legal Aid, the Summit Coalition for Community Health, Summa Health and renters in the city.
But the rule received strong pushback from landlords and the Consumer Data Industry Association, which profits from nationwide background checks provided to landlords.
The court did not adopt Rule 39.
Before pandemic, eviction rates in Akron were highest in the state
In 2019, Eviction Lab, a research program based at Princeton University, released data showing that Akron had the highest eviction rate among Ohio’s large cities and the 24th-highest eviction rate in the nation. That data only covered evictions through 2016, but more eviction cases were filed in January and February 2020 than in any of the previous 36 months.
These issues disproportionately affect Black Akronites, who make up 38% of Akron’s renters and much of Akron Municipal Court’s eviction docket despite comprising about 30% of Akron’s population.
Following the Eviction Lab findings, Fair Housing Contact Service put together an Eviction Task Force to raise awareness of housing issues in the city, address some of the challenges and coordinate solutions. The task force includes the International Institute of Akron, Summit County Public Health and Akron Municipal Court, among others.
Lauren Green-Hull, Associate Director at Fair Housing Contact Service, says the task force is brainstorming potential solutions to the high eviction rates. These could include source of income protections, which forbid landlords from discriminating against tenants who are using housing vouchers to pay rent, and educational resources for tenants facing evictions, as well as landlords.
Eviction hearings on Zoom are frustrating landlords, tenants and magistrates
With problems logging into Zoom, confusion over long waiting times and connection issues, some tenants The Devil Strip has spoken to have expressed frustration about the Zoom eviction process, saying they don’t feel heard.
“I didn’t understand it. I was confused. And the judge, I don’t even know if she could see my face on Zoom. It just seemed like she didn’t care,” Shalandra Jeffries says.
The court allows people to conduct their hearings at the courthouse using a court-provided laptop with the help of a bailiff. Plaintiffs or defendants can also call in and argue their case over the phone.
While judges, landlords and lawyers say online eviction hearings are not ideal, defendants are finding an occasional benefit in the remote process. Given the challenges of living with health problems, Hershey — who is battling stage four lung cancer — says he felt more comfortable at home.
Challenges of logging into Zoom calls and moving eviction hearings forward are not limited to tenants. Before the pandemic, attorney Joe Ferrise says evictions usually “used to be an open-and-shut case.” Today, getting your case heard takes longer. Hearings are sometimes continued because of complications due to the CDC moratorium. And there is no guarantee that tenants who receive CARES Act funding will be able to pay in the future.
Meanwhile, landlords are missing months worth of rent, with little clarification on when the moratorium will be lifted.
“A lot of folks are hurting with their income,” Ferrise says. “And when you talk to tenants, they’re hoping things will be better, but things haven’t gotten better for a lot of people. So they like to tell you they’ll start making payments again, but they can’t promise it. It’s wishful.”
Magistrates, too, are in a “tough spot,” Ferrise says. Each docket brings a new wave of cases with magistrates scrambling to rename plaintiffs and defendants and pair them to the correct case. Tech issues force delays.
During an interview with The Devil Strip in November, magistrate Jennifer Towell said the court had been seeing 20 to 25 eviction cases a day before the pandemic. Today, that number is slightly lower, but cases are more complicated. Without the hurdle of transportation to in-person hearings, tenant attendance is up, and hearings are lasting longer.
“We’re continually striving to make it accessible and fair to everyone,” Towell says. “Unfortunately, it’s a double-edged sword. In our efforts to help get people logged in, other people are required to wait longer and they get frustrated. You try to strike a balance. If we have one person who we spend 10 minutes trying to log in, all of a sudden the whole morning is delayed.”
John Petit, managing attorney at Community Legal Aid, believes the high volume of cases has forced courts to rush.
“This has resulted in cases being processed fast without regard to other conflict resolution options traditionally available in other legal actions. Options such as mediation, negotiated resolutions and more thorough fact-finding are discarded in the interest of moving evictions quickly,” Petit says.
As for LaForce and Hershey, they say they’re ready to move forward with their lives and “get back to normal” after a tumultuous winter.
“I want us to get back on track and get a house for us all so we can be happy again,” LaForce says.