Help for local tenants, landlords
- Published: April 16, 2020
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered all residents to “stay at home” beginning March 23.
But how secure is that home for renters who saw dramatic changes in their financial situation when nonessential businesses were shut down?
And what about local homeowners with a mortgage to pay, or landlords who live off their rental incomes?
Stepping in to assist is a new local volunteer committee organized around housing issues. Their goal? That no one loses their home because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Emily Seibel of Home, Inc.
“Housing is our refuge — it’s our shelter. It’s how we’re fighting the coronavirus in the community,” Seibel said this week. “It’s so important for people to feel a sense of confidence and hope about their housing stability.”
Joining Seibel on the committee, which was convened by the YS Community Foundation, is public interest lawyer Ellis Jacobs, Len Kramer of the foundation and landlord Teresa Dunphy of Dunphy Real Estate.
Jeannamarie Cox, director of the community foundation, said looking at housing concerns from the perspectives of both tenants and landlords is vital.
“Our goal is really to try to work with both sides and come up with a solution that works for everybody,” she said.
To that end, the committee is preparing three surveys for renters, landlords and all homeowners to see what the needs are. Through the foundation, renters can also access free legal advice. Anyone who is struggling with rent should contact the foundation at 937-767-2655. Renters in search of legal representation can call Legal Aid of Western Ohio at 888-534-1432 or visit http://www.legalaidline.org.
Front and center is the group’s message to renters: The only way you can be evicted is through the courts. And the court that hears local cases — Xenia Municipal Court — will not do so until May 11 at the earliest.
“The only way you can legally evict someone is by filing a case in court, participating in a hearing and getting an order from the judge granting the eviction,” Jacobs explained. “Without that, you can’t evict someone.”
Currently there is no moratorium on evictions in Ohio, in contrast to many states and some cities that have moved to do so.
Instead, each of the state’s 164 local courts is deciding when, and how, to proceed on evictions, according to Deb Lavey, a senior attorney with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, or ABLE. And while most courts have delayed hearing cases, some are still enforcing evictions.
“Some courts who had stopped doing evictions were still ordering tenants out during the pandemic,” she said.
In addition to a statewide moratorium, ABLE is also advocating for a state law that requires landlords to accept late payments and federal rental assistance during the coronavirus crisis. A form letter to send to your elected officials calling for a 90-day statewide moratorium on residential evictions is here.
But in lieu of state or federal measures, local renters can take steps now to avoid eviction, Jacobs, who is also an ABLE attorney, believes.
“The goal is to try to avoid an eviction by working with your landlord to meet his or her needs while at the same time meeting yours,” he said.
Renters who think they might have trouble paying their rent should immediately contact their landlord explaining their situation in writing, Jacobs advised.
“You want to work with your landlord,” Jacobs said. “Landlords probably want to work with you too, because having someone in a unit paying rent, even if it’s late, is better than having an empty unit.”
A written record — whether a letter or email — is important because it could be used in the tenant’s defense during eviction proceedings, Jacobs further explained. A template to use to contact one’s landlord is at an online resource prepared by the Dayton office of ABLE, Jacobs’ firm: mvcovid19eviction.com.
Landlords additionally can’t physically force a tenant off of the property, threaten to hurt a tenant if they don’t leave, remove a tenant’s possessions, turn off utilities, change the locks or make the property unlivable, according to ABLE. Lavey said she has seen an increase in such behavior in the Dayton area.
“We are seeing an uptick in self-help evictions, when the landlord is changing the locks or turning off utilities,” she said. “That is illegal and, under the law, the tenant can sue for their damages.”
Homeowners with mortgages are seeing some relief, and, if they are landlords, that relief can be passed on to tenants. Meanwhile, local eviction proceedings are all delayed by 60 days, beginning with cases filed in mid-March, according to the Greene County Court of Common Pleas.
According to the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act, borrowers with federally backed mortgages, which account for 70% of all mortgages, can request that payments be delayed by six months, with the option to extend another six months.
The CARES Act gives additional support to tenants, who cannot be evicted for not paying rent and late fees until July 25 if their landlord has a federally backed mortgage or receives government housing subsidies.
It’s unclear how many local tenants had difficulty paying rent on April 1, one week after the stay-at-home order went into place, or how many will have trouble on May 1, when furloughs and layoffs will have been in effect for over a month. Meanwhile, many recently unemployed people are still waiting for unemployment benefits to come through, and, for many, $1,200-per-person federal stimulus payments have yet to arrive.
Village Manager Josué Salmerón said at a Virtual Town Hall last week he had heard of instances locally in which tenants have been threatened with eviction. So far five people have contacted the YS Community Foundation directly seeking assistance related to paying their rent. And according to the initial results of a villagewide YS Community Foundation survey, nine people reported needing immediate assistance to pay rent, while another 11 noted they are worried about it over the next several weeks.
About one-third of all occupied housing units in the village are rentals, 601 units, according to the 2018 American Community Survey.
Seibel said she is not surprised that some villagers are having trouble paying their rent. After all, 43% of local renters are already housing-cost burdened, a condition in which more than 30% of one’s income goes toward housing. Due to the high cost of housing locally, and nationally, it’s difficult for many people without significant means to have emergency savings to lean on when a crisis occurs, Seibel added.
“This isn’t a new problem, there’s been a pandemic of poverty before this,” Seibel said. “This isn’t just Yellow Springs, it’s every county in the United States.”
As evidence of the lack of housing affordability, someone with a full-time minimum wage job can’t afford a fair-market two-bedroom rental, she explained.
“Housing prices and incomes have been mismatched and the gap has been widening for decades,” she said.
As part of its efforts to support local renters and homeowners, Home, Inc. is offering free financial coaching during the coronavirus pandemic. The group also committed to not pursuing evictions for failure to pay rent during the coronavirus. So far, though, all of the tenants in its eight local rental units have paid on time.
Then there’s the commercial real estate market.
When most downtown businesses were forced to close in March, Cox reached out to about 30 local commercial landlords asking them to defer, or forgive, lease payments. The response was varied. Some landlords explained that they couldn’t make concessions because they rely on the lease payments as their primary income, while others said they were able to make concessions on a case-by-case basis.
“The responses were on both ends of the spectrum,” Cox said.
Some relief has been granted for owners of commercial properties. On April 1, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed an executive order requesting all commercial real estate lenders to suspend payments for 90 days. The effort was aimed at helping small businesses not be forced into closing their business entirely. In addition, loans and grants through the Small Business Administration may help local businesses cover rent during the slowdown. The impact these two efforts will have on local businesses is currently unclear.
With uncertainty about when local shops will be allowed to reopen, and when tourists are likely to return, Cox says the group needs to stay in communication with tenants and landlords in the months ahead. The situation is equally uncertain on the residential side. Furthemore, if local landlords are allowing payments to be deferred, when, and how, will tenants be able to catch up?
“There is the immediate situation, but what will this look like in June?” Cox said.