As eviction court sits empty while jobs disappear, anxious renters and property owners stare down a new rent payment; plus, resources for tenants in financial distress

Usually, eviction court is bustling from 9 a.m. to noon on weekdays. A magistrate might hear 100 or more cases in one morning. But since an administrative order went out in mid March, courtroom 11B in Franklin County Municipal Court has sat empty, and it will stay that way until at least May 11.

Looks can be deceiving, though. Even though the court isn’t operating, landlords can still file evictions by mail, knowing the case won’t be heard until at least eight weeks from the filing date.

This in-between time during Ohio’s “stay at home” order is uncharted territory for renters, landlords and attorneys alike. “I've been practicing law as a legal services attorney for 14 years, and I've never had to deal with this before,” said Melissa Benson, a staff attorney with the nonprofit Legal Aid Society of Columbus (LASC). “This across-the-board shutdown of everything is putting a lot of things in flux.”

As the calendar flips to April, this week marks the first time many tenants will have to pay rent since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, which has led to massive unemployment numbers in Ohio and across the country. For those in Columbus who were already having a hard time making rent, their situation just got even more difficult. And while the idea of a “rent strike” has been making headlines, Benson and others, like Marcus Salter, a housing stability specialist with Community Mediation Services of Central Ohio, are very clear with tenants who call them for guidance: Don’t ignore the problem.

“In Ohio, there is no rent strike as a legal protection that tenants have. … Tenants are legally obligated to pay their rent, but they practically might not be able to. And what I’m hearing is people saying, ‘Well, they can't evict all of us,’” Benson said. “Legally speaking, if at all possible, tenants should be paying their rent. And if they're not able to, they should be trying to work out some sort of agreement with their landlords. Sticking your head in the sand is not going to benefit anyone in this situation.”

“The biggest thing is clearing up misinformation around evictions,” Salter said. “People are being told landlords can’t file evictions, and that’s not true.”

While neither Benson nor Salter, who are both working remotely, are experiencing a high volume of calls yet, Dimitri Hatzifotinos, an attorney with Willis Law who represents the Columbus Apartment Association, has been fielding “tons and tons and tons” of calls from property owners and managers.

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“The general consensus among landlords in Columbus, and in the surrounding area, is that landlords want to work with tenants to defer payments if the need for such a deferral is related to COVID-19 and job loss. The idea would be to do payment deferrals with a waiver of late fees and other fees for default, and then, hopefully, when this virus calms down and there's more certainty, figure out how to move forward,” said Hatzifotinos, who also noted that the apartment association, which represents about 100,000 units in Columbus, is taking a similar stance. “The bigger landlords that are part of the association are reaching out to me and saying, ‘What do we do? How do we do this?’ And the general advice that they're being given is, ‘Listen, filing an eviction right now is not in anybody's best interest because it's not going to get heard anytime soon anyway. So the better thing to do would be to see when people can pay and how they can pay and what they're able to pay.’”

With uncertainty still swirling around federal government aid, Hatzifotinos said property owners aren’t in a position to waive rent entirely. “Landlords don't know what their mortgage companies are going to do. They still have to pay mortgages,” he said. “So, at this point, the discussion is really centered around waiver of late fees and deferral of rent in a way that makes sense for everybody without filing evictions.”

Benson has heard about a range of landlord reactions since the COVID crisis began. “Some landlords are being very proactive. I'm hearing stories about some landlords who are trying trying very hard to work with tenants to get things set up,” she said. “But I'm also hearing stories about landlords who have had tenants reach out to them and say, ‘I'm not working right now because of COVID-19. I want to work something out with you so I can pay when I am working again or when I get my unemployment,’ and then landlords saying, ‘Rent is due on the first of the month.’”

Benson also expressed concern that, with eviction court closed and court-supervised set-outs on hold, some landlords could try to take matters into their own hands. “There may be an uptick in self-help evictions, where landlords are throwing people out, shutting off their utilities, locking them out or throwing their possessions out because they haven't been able to pay rent,” she said. “[Those tenants] should absolutely be calling Legal Aid. That is a violation of landlord/tenant law. Whether or not we are in a pandemic, landlords must use the court process to remove someone.”

To help tenants in crisis, Legal Aid is accepting phone calls and online applications regarding just about any legal questions related to COVID-19, and the nonprofit also made a new page on its website devoted specifically to legal updates and community resources related to COVID-19. Benson also recommended that tenants and landlords make use of Community Mediation Services, which normally has a staff member at eviction court, to work out agreements over the phone, and to make sure to get any new agreements in writing. 

(For his part, Hatzifotinos said he would rather tenants and landlords work out agreements one-on-one. “We're trying to keep tenants out of default. When Community Mediation traditionally gets involved, they're helping tenants that are already in default. We're not doing that here. We're trying to keep people in good standing with their lease,” he said.)

Columbus City Council also recently compiled a list of resources for eviction mitigation and rental assistance. In addition, on March 16 Council approved a $1 million COVID-19 fund to help support housing and food assistance, and Councilman Rob Dorans said that he and others are working on additional funding while also identifying local nonprofits with existing rent stabilization programs. “This will help make sure we don’t reinvent the wheel and work [efficiently] as possible to help people stay in their homes,” Dorans said in an email. 

Even at what is likely the beginning of this COVID-19 crisis, the problem of housing insecurity for low-income communities in Columbus can seem dire. But Benson, for one, is hopeful. “Whenever there's a crisis, people respond across a range. There are people who will try and take advantage of that situation, and people who will step up and try to help,” she said. “I seem to be seeing many more stories of people trying to step up and help than people taking advantage of it. And I find that very encouraging.”