Franklin County has the highest eviction rate in Ohio. Why? And what can be done about it?

When Stacy Dellibovi arrived at eviction court on a Friday morning in early February, she felt like a failure.

Everything had gone downhill so quickly. A few months earlier, the 40-year-old single mom had been employed as a phlebotomist and support technician at CompDrug, an addiction treatment center. Drawing blood and overseeing urine screenings was gritty, challenging work, but Dellibovi loved it. She relished being a positive presence in the lives of those struggling with addiction. For the first time in her life, she woke up every morning excited to go to work.

Then, the day after Thanksgiving, she lost her job. Dellibovi scrambled to look for another job, spending day after day on the computer filling out applications and redoing her resume. But nothing came quickly. Pretty soon she couldn't make her car payments, and she fell behind on the $1,395 rent for the Canal Winchester home she shared with her two youngest kids, 8 and 13. She lost her brand-new car, and now she was facing an eviction.

When the bailiff called out her name, Dellibovi felt like a spotlight was on her as she walked down the center aisle in courtroom 11A of Franklin County Municipal Court, flanked on either side by tenants and their family members waiting in wooden benches for their turn in front of the magistrate. She carried herself with confidence in gray nursing scrubs, but inside she struggled to contain the anxiety, embarrassment and an overwhelming sense of dread.

Dellibovi's hearing was one of the first of the morning, included among a batch of evictions filed by American Homes 4 Rent, a company that owns tens of thousands of rental properties across the country and was founded several years ago by billionaire businessman B. Wayne Hughes, who previously made his fortune in the self-storage business. Dellibovi's landlord didn't come to the hearing. Instead, American Homes 4 Rent sent an attorney with a written statement from the landlord — an affidavit.

Presiding Magistrate Gene Edwards — a young, cordial man who smiles more than you might think — began the hearing with a simple question: “Do you understand what's happening here this morning?” A series of other questions for Dellibovi followed: “Did you receive this notice to leave the premises?”; “Were you behind on your rent?”; “Are you still behind?”; “Are you still living there?”

“Is there anything else you'd like to tell me?” Edwards asked.

Dellibovi explained her trying circumstances, but because she had violated her lease agreement by not paying rent, her story didn't make a legal difference. Edwards granted a judgment for eviction and explained what would happen next, showing her the “red tag” — actually a fluorescent orange sticker — that will be placed on her door. If she doesn't move out of the house within five days of the red tag showing up, the court will supervise the removal of her belongings, known commonly as a “set out.”

Dellibovi's hearing lasts about two minutes, but those two minutes have potentially devastating consequences. The eviction judgment will soon show up in court records, which means it will also show up in credit reports when she's looking for a new place.

“I want to keep my kids in their schools and keep them stable because my kids are the first priority,” she said, choking back tears near the elevators outside the courtroom. “I just need to find something as quickly as I can.”

Dellibovi's hearing is one of about 100 eviction cases that morning. Various magistrates preside over eviction court every weekday from 9 a.m. to noon, and on particularly busy days, the courtroom can process up to 250 cases. Many tenants don't show up, resulting in an automatic eviction judgment.

In 2016, nearly 18,000 evictions were filed in Franklin County — the most in Ohio. Chicago, on the other hand, which has nearly three times the population of Columbus, filed about 24,000 evictions.

“When you look at it by population, the numbers aren't adding up. Something is leading to a very high eviction rate,” said Melissa Benson, a housing attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Columbus (LASC). “I don't know if you can pinpoint it to just one thing, but it is very concerning.”

II.

Matthew Desmond's 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Evicted,” helped to start a national conversation about evictions. Locally, City Councilwoman Jaiza Page and Franklin County Commissioner Marilyn Brown took the lead on evictions last summer when they announced a partnership with Ohio State University's Glenn College of Public Affairs to look into the issue.

According to the Glenn College research, more than 40 percent of Franklin County's eviction filings occur in only six zip codes, with neighborhoods like Whitehall, Northland and the Hilltop accounting for the highest numbers. These disparities line up with a 2015 University of Toronto study that designated Columbus as the second-most economically segregated metro area in the country. As rents have continued to rise across the city, incomes have remained relatively stagnant.

“The income inequality in Columbus is staggering,” said Kelsey Tschanen, who, along with Brittany Cline, studied Franklin County evictions for their culminating research projects in the Glenn College master's program. “When you start looking at evictions it really highlights that aspect.”

Mayor Andrew Ginther's Women's Commission, chaired by First Lady Shannon Ginther, also recently turned its focus to evictions. Just as women are most affected by homelessness in Columbus (95 percent of homeless families are headed by women), women are also more likely to face eviction, particularly African-American women. In Tschanen's research, 63 percent of tenants she surveyed at the courthouse were black women, and in a national Apartment List study last fall, data revealed that black households are more than twice as likely to face eviction compared to white households.

“Not everyone who is evicted becomes homeless, but many who are in a homeless shelter have been evicted,” said Shelly Beiting, executive director of the Women's Commission. “We wanted to be a witness to the process, as well as to start talking to women and understanding their experience around evictions.”

Dellibovi's experience with American Homes 4 Rent speaks to one of the primary differences between Franklin County and most other counties in Ohio. During the first part of the eviction suit, tenants are required to show up at 9 a.m. for the hearing and wait for their case to be called. If no tenant shows, the magistrate hands down an eviction judgment. Landlords, meanwhile, are not required to be present at the first hearing. They can, and often do, send an attorney with an affidavit instead.

“I don't understand why, as the tenant, I had to show up for court, but for them, it was just the attorney. No one from the company was there,” said Dellibovi, who missed classes at Hondros College of Nursing and received a failing grade for the day in order to attend the hearing. “Would I have expected a different outcome? Not necessarily. But I think as people, if we put a face to that person and hear the situation, maybe you can come at it with a different approach. When you're not there, it's all business and paper.”

When LASC attorney Melissa Benson came to Columbus in 2015 from the Legal Aid office in Chillicothe, she couldn't believe landlords in Franklin County could evict by affidavit. “As someone who practiced eviction law for almost a decade, I was completely astonished that this was something that was allowed. It was something I never expected. I'd never even heard of it happening,” Benson said. “I think it's one of the biggest contributors to the high eviction rate that we have.”

“It also frustrates that negotiation process the court relies on so heavily,” Benson said. “The landlords aren't there, so it's hard to negotiate with someone who's not there.”

The theory goes, if landlords were required to attend the first eviction hearing, they would be less likely to evict. Recently, Beiting and other members of the Women's Commission witnessed a similar phenomenon firsthand while visiting the housing court in Cleveland, where landlords cannot evict solely by affidavit.

“We saw one instance where the magistrate turned to the tenant and said, ‘How many days do you need to get out of the property?' And the woman said, ‘I need 14 days.' And the landlord said, ‘No, I'll give you 10,'” Beiting said. But after the magistrate asked the tenant more questions — “Are you over 60? Is there anyone medically disabled in the household? Are there any veterans in the household? Are there any minor children?” — the landlord took note of the woman's four minor children and decided to give her the 14 days.

“I don't believe that would have happened if the landlord would not have been present,” Beiting said. “There's a connection there. The landlord has to look at an individual that they're evicting. Maybe that would change the story for some.”

But Dimitri Hatzifotinos, a spokesman for the Columbus Apartment Association and an attorney with Willis Law, which often represents large rental companies in court, said affidavits don't make it easier or harder to evict people.

“An affidavit takes the place of an appearance, but only if it's uncontested. So, if an affidavit is ever contested, an appearance is necessary,” Hatzifotinos said. “But if the tenant says, ‘Yes, I'm behind in my rent; yes, I got a three-day notice; yes, I still live there,' that's enough for the landlord to get an eviction judgment without any other evidence.”

“I can tell you,” he continued, “being the largest volume filer in that court, and having been for many years, that if someone shows up who's a tenant, and our office represents [the landlord], we're going to do everything we can to work it out … whether we actually have a human being there to testify for us. A lot of times, we have phones and texts going full cycle as we're down there, making sure that we're not missing out on an opportunity to work something out.”

Hatzifotinos stressed that communication between the landlord and tenant before the court date is crucial. “We would rather try to get money from residents than to kick them out,” he said. “The goal is to get paid, not to evict. If there's somebody at the table willing to pay, something can happen.”

Regarding Franklin County's high rate of evictions, Hatzifotinos points to Columbus' large number of renters and the fact that the county, which is the most populous in Ohio, has only one court handling all evictions. Stacy Dellibovi's hometown of Canal Winchester, for instance, has a Mayor's Court, but her eviction still went through Franklin County Municipal Court.

On March 8, Beiting discussed eviction-related policy proposals with Mayor Ginther, Council President Shannon Hardin, City Attorney Zach Klein and Councilwoman Jaiza Page. The affidavit issue, she said, is an area of focus, but the overarching goal of the Women's Commission is equity in the eviction process.

“Sometimes cases get continued over and over again,” Benson said, “and each week the tenant is there and taking off work and spending money on childcare, but the landlord isn't. There becomes an imbalance for the tenant. There's a point at which it becomes inherently unfair.”

III.

The vast majority of evictions are filed because of nonpayment of rent, and chances are, if tenants aren't able to pay rent, they also can't afford a lawyer. That means many tenants are on their own in front of a magistrate, and most tenants don't know much about the legalities of the eviction process.

“By law they have to follow the same legal steps as a lawyer, and that's very difficult for the average person,” said Magistrate Gene Edwards, who also helps oversee Franklin County Municipal Court's Self-Help Resource Center. “This is so overwhelming for people when they come in.”

For instance, it's not uncommon for tenants to decide not to pay their rent, and to use that nonpayment as leverage so they can hold their landlords accountable for repairs that haven't been made. After all, if the landlord isn't upholding his end of the deal, why should the tenant?

But that's not how Ohio law works. Withholding rent is cause for eviction. Instead, if repairs aren't being made, tenants can go through a process to escrow their rent with the court. “A lot of people don't realize [rent escrow] exists,” Benson said. “Then when they realize it does exist, there are enough steps that, if they haven't consulted with a lawyer, there's a reasonable chance they'll do something wrong when they're filing for escrow.”

To help with such matters, the Legal Aid Society's Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP) has staffed a table every weekday morning outside courtroom 11A since March of last year. “There's always a Legal Aid attorney at the TAP table, and we also have a wonderful network of private volunteer attorneys from firms all over the city who come in,” Benson said.

Tenants can walk up to the TAP table and fill out an application, and then a Legal Aid attorney or volunteer attorney will look for legal defenses. If there are none, Legal Aid refers tenants to Community Mediation Services, another nonprofit that sets up outside the courtroom. Most often, a mediator helps tenants negotiate agreements with landlords to pay and stay in the property and have the eviction dismissed, or the mediator tries to work out an arrangement for the tenant to move out within a certain time frame and keep an eviction off the tenant's record.

Beginning last year, a representative from Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services' Prevention, Retention and Contingency (PRC) program is also onsite to help process and expedite applications for one-time emergency assistance to families in crisis.

Still, out of the 100-plus eviction cases on a typical morning, Legal Aid's TAP program reaches about six or seven tenants a day — better than before TAP, but still a tiny percentage of overall eviction filings.

IV.

Stacy Dellibovi never knew about Legal Aid, even though she walked right past the TAP table, nor did she know about Community Mediation. Better education and communication about the eviction process is something everyone from city officials to the Columbus Apartment Association seems to agree on. To that end, Councilwoman Jaiza Page is planning a series of educational forums on eviction beginning next month.

But it will take time and many, many forums to reach tenants like Dellibovi, who said she has felt like a statistic ever since she became pregnant during her senior year of high school in Pataskala. “I was a teen mom, so that's made life hard for me,” she said. “It's followed me along the way.”

After high school, she set aside her dream of becoming an OB-GYN and instead worked medical assistant jobs while caring for her son, and then a daughter who arrived two years later. Dellibovi experienced an eviction in those first years of her adult life, but she bounced back and eventually started an in-home daycare business. In 2006, she married and had two more kids, but several years later the marriage couldn't survive her ex-husband's rocky re-entry after a deployment to Afghanistan. Yet again she proved resilient, working multiple jobs as a single mom while battling narcolepsy and fibromyalgia.

Losing her CompDrug job in November and getting evicted in February took a toll on Dellibovi. She lost 13 pounds in a month from the stress. “There were days that my stress would affect my kids,” she said. “They'd see me losing it and say, ‘Mommy, why are you crying?' They got to see a lot of what you try to shelter them from.”

At the beginning of the year, Dellibovi began the nursing program at Hondros, borrowing a friend's car to go back and forth for classes. She'll soon start a new job with Advanced Recovery Services, working three 12-hour shifts in between classes.

Most importantly, after searching high and low, she managed to find a new place to live — a privately owned Canal Winchester ranch house in the same school district as her previous home. It's gray with a white picket fence around the sidewalk. In early March, the kitchen was cluttered with stacks of moving boxes and Christmas garland and Huggies diapers for her granddaughter. A sign above the hearth declared, “There's no place like home.”

The $1,350 rent is still a bit higher than she would have liked, but with the new job, a borrowed car and some side work as a promotional model, Dellibovi is confident she can pay her bills. She's determined not to let her recent eviction define her. But the court record is there, nonetheless. It can't be expunged. Just like that teen mom statistic, it follows her around.