Forum examines protections for tenants
by Jack Barnes
On March 17th Organize! Ohio hosted a zoom forum event called “Expanding Tenant Protections: Pay to Stay and Source of Income” as part of the Ohio Fair Lending & Vital Communities Brown Bag Forum series. Moderated by Cuyahoga Affordable Housing Alliance (CAHA) Chair Phil Star, meeting attendees heard from housing experts who shed light on the current efforts to keep people housed, lawyers who got specific legislation passed in certain Ohio cities, and representatives from both of Ohio’s United States Senators who discussed the stances of their bosses and potential actions on Capitol Hill.
Star began the St. Patrick’s Day forum by noting that the first Irish immigrants to Ireland settled in the west bank of the flats where, impoverished, the tenements they lived in eventually became part of a national movement toward legislated tenant protection in the form of housing and building codes.
This first panelist to present was Molly Martin, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH). Martin shared a slideshow explaining what Pay to Stay legislation is and why it matters. Currently in Cleveland and most Ohio cities, she described, landlords can proceed with evictions even if the tenant offers the money after it is due. Under a Pay to Stay law, tenants would be able to prevent evictions by paying rent and late fees prior to eviction filings or before an eviction judgment. In this way, Pay to Stay “encourages landlords to work with a tenant outside of court and disincentivizes filings… because [it] would be a codified equitable defense.” Martin shared statistics to show its relevance. In Cleveland, where 80% of 9,000 annual evictions are filed for nonpayment of rent affecting a group that is 77% Black, such legislation could significantly reduce the number of destabilizing life events for an already marginalized population.
In addition to Pay to Stay, protections related to source of income discrimination represent another legislative goal for housing advocates. A presentation by Senior Research Associate at Fair Housing Center for Rights & Research Michael Lepley shed some light on the topic. Source of income discrimination, Lepley says, generally refers to “landlords refusing to accept housing vouchers specifically, and sometimes other federal and local housing subsidies like rapid rehousing vouchers or other forms of supplemental income.” Lepley’s study included a survey, aided by the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA), which shows that the “number one factor preventing [respondents] from finding their preferred housing was landlords refusing to accept their vouchers,” demonstrating that without source of income laws the voucher program fails to achieve its goals. The research goes on to convincingly show that the housing program contributes to racial segregation in Cuyahoga County, both because landlords often use “No Section 8” qualifiers as proxy for racially motivated discrimination, and even when the provider is not racially motivated this exclusion still has a discriminatory effect.
During the pandemic, attorneys Debra Lavey and Reem Subei at Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE) have been successful in getting these kinds of protections passed in some local governments in Ohio. Lavey discussed getting a Pay to Stay ordinance passed in the Village of Yellow Springs in Greene County. While the ordinance is limited and only lasts until the state of emergency is over, it does include a provision capping the amount allowed to be charged for late fees and provides several opportunities for tenants to pay their rent. Subei then explained the Pay to Stay ordinance they subsequently got passed in Toledo, which, while it does not create a right to paying rent late, creates an affirmative defense that a judge can accept or deny. This way tenants do not need to know about it if they cannot afford legal defense. Additionally, Subei said, ABLE was able to get source of income legislation passed in Toledo; an effort that has actually been going on since 2018.
The forum’s liaisons to Washington, D.C. offered some updates on national housing policy efforts. Legislative Assistant Avery Pierson from Senator Rob Portman’s Office went first, describing Portman as “a leader in ensuring that the rental assistance provision was included” in the COVID relief bills passed by Congress. Senator Sherrod Brown’s representative Beth Cooper mentioned that, while Brown has been spending most of his time working on the American Rescue Act, he was pleased that the recent Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on housing addressed the full range of housing needs, rather than only discussing housing in its relation to banking. Both reps were happy to note the $21 billion for emergency rental assistance included in the American Rescue Plan.
The forum’s final speaker was Kate Carden, Assistant Director of Community Resources at CHN Housing Partners, who shared a slideshow updating attendees on the state of rental assistance in the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. CHN partnered with EDEN to administer COVID rental relief, and Carden explained that county residents with incomes below 80% of the Area Median Income and a COVID related hardship qualified. Since the program began in June, need has increased dramatically, and they anticipate a significant spike leading up to and after the expiration of the Center for Disease Control eviction moratorium.