Amid Columbus' affordable housing crisis, City Council passed legislation to make it easier to prosecute retaliatory evictions, but there's still a long way to go in addressing Franklin County's high eviction rate

In her work as a housing attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Columbus, Melissa Benson would often see a tenant make a complaint to the city's code enforcement about unhealthy or dangerous conditions in an apartment, and then watch as a landlord responded by filing for an eviction instead of actually fixing the problem.

That response, known as a retaliatory eviction, has never been legal, but until recently there was little the city could do about it. According to Benson and outgoing City Councilmember Jaiza Page, the city reviewed about 40 cases involving potential retaliatory evictions since 2016, but not one could be prosecuted.

“Because of the way that our code section was written, it just really didn't have teeth,” Page said.

On Monday, Dec. 10, City Council unanimously passed changes to the city's retaliatory eviction code that will give it some teeth, similar to ordinances in Cincinnati and Cleveland. The initial burden falls on the city to prove that a landlord has taken a retaliatory action in “close temporal proximity” to a tenant's good faith complaint, and from there the city attorney's office can pursue criminal charges against the landlord.

“I'm hopeful that if landlords realize that the city is taking this seriously and that they will be enforcing this ordinance as it's been changed, that it will make them less likely to do this,” Benson said. “We actually have a chart [at Legal Aid] that is a cycle of retaliation for evictions, and now we can take out one piece that we had in the chart.”

Both Page and Benson acknowledge there's much more work to be done to stem the tide of evictions in Franklin County, where nearly 18,000 were filed in 2016 — the highest rate in Ohio. In March of 2018, Alive wrote at length about the eviction issue, and one consistently levied criticism regarding equity in the eviction process was the fact that while tenants are required to show up to Franklin County Municipal Court at 9 a.m. for an eviction hearing, a landlord can merely send a written statement — an affidavit. Franklin County is one of the few counties in Ohio, and by far the largest, to allow eviction by affidavit.

Council, though, is hamstrung when it comes to evictions by affidavit. “It's not something that City Council has the legal authority to require the court to do,” Page said. “But I know that those conversations are continuing with the court, and they continue to look at ways to improve the eviction process. … If the tenant is there and the landlord is not there, a continuance can be requested by the tenant, [and the magistrate] can grant a continuance with the request that the landlord show up the next time and not just rely on the affidavit.”

In her last weeks on council before taking the bench as a Common Pleas judge on Jan. 3, Page is also working on a plan for more emergency funding sources to help prevent evictions. “That gap funding is crucial to help keep families in their homes and stabilize them,” Page said. “That would likely be in the beginning of next year, but [I hope] to have everything pretty much ready to go, and then the next council member can pick it up.”

The Legal Aid Society's Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP) has also made a measurable difference at the courthouse. According to Legal Aid, in the first six months of the program, when tenants were assisted by TAP, only 1 percent of cases resulted in judgment against the tenant. Having TAP present at the courthouse has also changed the culture of eviction court. “We're there every day,” Benson said. “Before we started the Tenant Advocacy Project and were able to staff it to the [current] levels, we were only in court a couple of days a week. The attorneys for the landlords were there every day … and so they had this relationship and this presence in the building we did not have. And having the Tenant Advocacy Project there every day has changed that.”

Underlying the entire eviction issue, though, is Columbus' severe lack of affordable housing. More affordable units for the city's most vulnerable residents are needed to help prevent evictions, Page said.

“We have such a high demand for affordable housing for low-income people that the landlords could get away with [retaliatory evictions] because people were having to decide whether they want a roof over their head with poor conditions, or be homeless,” Benson said. “When somebody would leave the property, there'd be 10 other people lined up to get in there regardless of the condition of the property because there's just not enough housing stock that is safe and decent and affordable for a large portion of our community.”