As Ohio begins to reopen industries this week, many are still struggling to recover from the shutdown that left over a million in Ohio without a job.
Part of that recovery includes finding a solution for renters who haven’t been able pay their rent and landlords who didn’t get that income.
With no clear end in sight to the crisis, renters, landlords and housing experts in Columbus are looking into solutions that could help keep the system of rental properties running as smoothly as possible. Those solutions include an eviction moratorium, payment forgiveness, a rent strike and rental forgiveness.
An eviction moratorium is a temporary stop on evictions, similar to what the Franklin County Municipal Court did. Most evictions filed in Franklin County won’t be heard in court until June 1, effectively postponing most “set outs” — the process of removing someone from their home after an eviction has been filed — for a few months.
But that’s just Franklin County. Throughout the pandemic, many counties throughout the state have continued to hear eviction cases in court and allowed landlords to remove tenants from their properties for lack of payment. That’s why groups like the Ohio Poverty Law Center and the Columbus Tenants Union are advocating for a statewide moratorium.
As evictions can also lead renters to become unhoused, advocates argue a moratorium is especially important during the pandemic to limit the spread of the virus.
“It could really lead to a downward spiral: the overflooding of our shelters, increased numbers of individuals who have been infected, overburdening our hospitals,” said Megan O’Dell, a housing attorney with Ohio Poverty Law Center. “Our biggest concern is people becoming homeless and losing their homes.”
A moratorium would prevent renters from being removed from their homes (at least, legally) and limit any increases to shelters or the unhoused population generally, but the solution only addresses part of the problem. Stopping evictions doesn’t prevent them from happening at all nor does it address the lack of income for property owners who have to pay mortgages for their rental properties.
“An eviction moratorium is great and thank you for it,” said Carlie Boos, executive director of the Affordable Housing Alliance of Central Ohio. “But an eviction moratorium delays the catastrophe, it does not prevent one.”
Without a moratorium, many renters across the country have decided to take things into their own hands by striking. A rent strike would mean that tenants in a building or multiple buildings ban together and agree to not pay rent.
In Columbus, members of the Socialist Alternative have created a Facebook group for discussing a rent strike in Columbus, which has garnered nearly 250 members in the month since it was created.
“I think there’s a mood for it,” said Andrew Lin, an organizer of the rent strike and member of the Socialist Alternative. “There’s going to be people who aren’t going to be able to pay rent, so generally I just think it’s worth it to organize people so that, when people have no choice but to not pay rent, they can at least have the support of their entire building.”
However, a rent strike in Ohio could backfire on renters because Ohio does not grant any legal protections for renters who are striking.
“If a tenant does not pay their rent, the court can really only see if they paid or not,” said Melissa Bensons, a housing attorney from Legal Aid Society of Columbus.
That means renters who refuse to pay rent as part of a rent strike could still face an eviction. When asked about the potential repercussions, Lin said he believes tenants want to take action.
“We shouldn’t be telling people not to pay rent willy nilly, but at the same time, I think because there’s a mood for a rent strike,” Lin said. “We’re in a moment where like this pandemic is making people realize so many things about how our society is set up and a lot of the deep flaws that exist, and so while I’m not saying, ‘Oh, people should just not pay rent,’ I also think we can’t just ignore this popular sentiment for people to take some sort of an action and to call for rent suspension.”
Payment forgiveness, on the other hand, would keep tenants and landlords alike out of the courts. That forgiveness could look like landlords forgiving rent payments for tenants, lenders forgiving mortgage payments for landlords or both, assuming that if a landlord’s mortgage payment was forgiven they could pass those savings onto renters.
Along with the moratorium on evictions, the Columbus Tenants Union is advocating for a rent forgiveness, also called amnesty of rent. The group has gathered more than 15,000 signatures on a petition calling for both, said Rachel Wenning, an attorney with the tenants union.
“Really, what we want is for people just to not have to pay their rent when they have no income or have severely diminished income,” she said.
Although not paying rent would help tenants, that doesn’t address the loss of income for property owners that rent forgiveness would bring.
The CARES Act, which forgave mortgage payments for property owners that have federally backed loans, was created to help business owners with their loss of income. But even with that program in place, there were issues with its implementation.
Part of the intention behind forgiving federally backed loans is to help properties that are participating in the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, which is designed to incentivize the construction of affordable housing, Boos from the Affordable Housing Alliance said. However, many of the LIHTC properties don’t have a federally backed loan, so the assistance in the CARES Act missed them entirely.
“We’re hoping that those kinks get worked out quickly and that we don’t have failures,” Boos said. “But I think everyone is struggling with this question right now, and there’s no great answers.”
The solution that many advocates and experts seem to come back to is rental assistance. Most likely, this would look like a government program where money is given directly to renters to pay their landlords who can then pay their mortgages.
The Ohio Poverty Law Center is advocating for an eviction moratorium coupled with rental assistance. The rental assistance is essential because it will prevent tenants from falling behind on rent payments, O’Dell said, while also making sure that landlords can still make their payments.
That’s also the direction that Boos advocated for, adding that it’s a better alternative for dealing with the pandemic than evictions.
“What we really need to see is housing assistance, an emergency rent assistance, so that we don’t have a glut of people coming down to the courthouse by the hundreds every day to get thrown out of their homes for something that was really beyond all of our control,” Boos said.
The upcoming months represent uncertainty in nearly every aspect of everyday life, including housing. But, as with the pandemic and resulting social distancing, those effects are felt throughout the city.
“If there is anything reassuring about this, it’s that we really are all in this together,” Boos said. “What is good for tenants is good for property owners is good for the global economy.”
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