After hundreds of pandemic evictions, Akron will consider new rules to protect renters

Reporting and writing by Noor Hindi

On Monday, the mayor’s office proposed two pieces of legislation to City Council that would provide renters with more protection when facing eviction and searching for housing. 

Source of income protections would forbid landlords from denying tenants based on how they’re paying rent. For example, it prevents landlords from discriminating against tenants who use the Housing Choice Voucher Program, more commonly known as Section 8, to pay rent. 

“Pay to stay” protections would allow renters who pay or offer to pay all back rent and late fees the opportunity to have their eviction cases dismissed.

These legislations come amid Akron’s ongoing eviction crisis. In 2016, Akron had the highest eviction rates among Ohio’s large cities and 24th-highest eviction rates in the nation, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. 

James Hardy, Deputy Mayor for Integrated Development, presented the two proposals to Akron City Council’s Housing and Neighborhood Assistance committee meeting on April 5. Council members will continue meeting and discussing the reforms in the coming weeks. 

“Akron remains the eviction capital of Ohio, even during the pandemic, and there is every indication the situation will get worse coming out of the pandemic without intervention,” says Hardy. “These two pieces of legislation represent a baseline in terms of systems change. The city — particularly the municipal court — will need to do much more to level the playing field,” Hardy says. 

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Though Hardy sees the proposals as the “bare minimum” in protecting renters “in an environment that still weighs heavily in a landlord’s favor,” housing advocates say they are a step in the right direction.

Laws prohibiting landlords from denying housing based on an applicant’s source of income — whether that income comes from housing vouchers, child support payments, welfare programs or otherwise — have passed in parts of Cincinnati, Columbus, Toledo and Cleveland. 

John Petit, managing attorney at Community Legal Aid, says his agency often sees this type of discrimination happening in wealthier parts of Akron. 

“Often we see cases where some of the landlords there are saying, ‘we don’t want the type of tenants who receive Section 8.’ And most of the time they won’t come out and say it’s racially motivated, but studies have shown that it has a disparate impact,’” Petit says. 

Brant T. Lee, a law professor at the University of Akron, says source-of-income discrimination can sometimes prevent people from escaping “a cycle of poverty.” Lee joined Hardy and Lauren Green-Hull, Associate Director at Fair Housing Contact Services, in advocating for the proposals on Monday. 

“This allows people to move into areas that are less high-poverty, which is really how you get a chance at upward mobility. We have seen the studies that show how your ZIP code is the best predictor of future success, in all kinds of ways — economic and social and others,” Lee says. 

Pay to stay, which has been passed in Dayton and Toledo, offers renters further defense when facing eviction. If passed, it would allow renters who are facing eviction to pay or offer to pay all back rent and late fees and have their cases dismissed. 

Further, Akron’s pay to stay legislation would cap late fees at $25 or 5% of the monthly rent, preventing “exorbitant late fees that can rack up the past due amounts very quickly and put a tenant in a position where it becomes hard for them to get current once the eviction has been filed,” Hardy says. 

Torey Hollingsworth, a senior policy aide at the City of Dayton, says the city’s pay to stay legislation was passed two weeks ago after city officials realized evictions have had “huge destabilizing effects on our neighborhoods.”

“Within the city commission, it was a unanimous vote. This is something they felt very strongly about in terms of protecting tenants, making sure families are able to stay housed, but also looking at our rental assistance data from last year, the number of families that were on the edge here is just massive,” she says. “So it’s both an individual family issue but also a neighborhood stability issue.”

Akron’s two new proposals come after more than a year of research and collaboration from the city’s Eviction Task Force, which was put together in 2019 by Fair Housing Contact Services after the Eviction Lab findings were published. 

When the pandemic hit, Akron’s eviction crisis was underscored as renters impacted by COVID-19 began seeking CARES Act funding. But despite millions in rental assistance and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction moratorium, The Devil Strip found that more than 600 households have been evicted between March 9, 2020 and Feb. 20, 2021. 

The moratorium contains loopholes that allow certain types of evictions to go forward. In some cases, tenants have shown up to court without signing a specific CDC declaration, which they needed to show to prove they’ve been impacted by COVID-19. 

At the end of March, the CDC announced that it would extend the moratorium through June. Despite this, landlords across the country have challenged the moratorium. On March 10, the United States District Court of Northern Ohio ruled that the CDC had “exceeded the scope of its authority.”

Akron Municipal Court is broadly reading the ruling to mean that no tenant is protected under the CDC’s order, effectively removing this protection, according to Akron Beacon Journal reports. 

Municipal courts in Cleveland, Stow, Ravenna, Kent and Canton, on the other hand, have read the judge’s ruling to mean that the moratorium no longer applies only to the landlords who brought that particular case. 

Without the limited protections of the moratorium, Akron may see an increase in evictions. 

“I think these reforms are definitely a step in the right direction,” says Ward 8 councilmember Shammas Malik. “We obviously have a lack of stable affordable and quality housing in Akron. This creates a huge burden on Akron households. And while these steps alone are not going to solve our broader eviction and housing crisis I think this can be the start of broader conversation.”

Noor Hindi covers equity and inclusion for The Devil Strip. Email her at noor@thedevilstrip.com. 

Doug Livingston, a reporter at the Akron Beacon Journal, contributed to this report. Reach him at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.

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