By Seth Weber
Imagine this: you’re injured, out of work and can’t afford to pay your bills. Your pipes are leaking, leading to high utility costs, and your landlord won’t fix them. You’re scheduled to be in eviction court and without an attorney, you’ll most likely have an eviction filing on your record.
This seems like a pretty hopeless situation where no one – not even the justice system – is willing to help you. Agencies such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati out there looking out for the city’s most vulnerable, however.
City council passed an ordinance in January that will appropriate $227,000 to eviction prevention. An agency has yet to be chosen as a recipient, as progress on a request for proposal (RFP) has been slow but steady, said Vanessa White, chief of staff for council member Greg Landsman. An RFP will be sent out by July 1.
That amount of cash may sound like a lot, but it’s small compared to what social service agencies in Hamilton County spend on eviction prevention alone.
St. Vincent spent $700,000 on eviction prevention in 2017. Strategies to End Homelessness (STEH), Cincinnati’s Unified Funding Agency for homelessness, spent more than $920,000 on eviction prevention in 2017, according to their 2017 IRS forms. Even still, Mary Reid, St. Vincent’s social services director, and STEH President and CEO Kevin Finn have expressed this is just a drop in the bucket in the face of the problem.
STEH’s eviction prevention fund was just 4 percent of the $22.2 million it spent in 2017. The rest went to keeping people experiencing homelessness off the street and in shelters. Most of the eviction prevention funding comes from state and local governments, while the federal government funds homelessness programs, Finn said.
Hundreds of dollars more on average are spent keeping individuals off the street than are spent on aid with rent or utilities, Finn said. Little public spending goes towards eviction prevention, however, because officials don’t want it to be “wasted” on people who aren’t going to end up experiencing homelessness if they are evicted.
Low-income residents who aren’t getting help often pay up to half their income on rent, said Nick DiNardo, managing attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati. This is corroborated by a 2017 housing affordability report authored by the Community Building Institute at Xavier University. The report states a third of households in Hamilton County are paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing, which is considered a cost burden.
“Throughout Hamilton County this is particularly pronounced among extremely low income households,” the report states. “Three quarters of these households spend more than 30 percent, or more than 50 percent, of their income on housing, making it difficult to pay for other essential expenses.”
The housing market is not looking hopeful for these folks, as Hamilton County’s poverty rate has risen from 13 to 18 percent since 2000 and there are 500 fewer subsidized housing units since that time. Forty thousand more subsidized housing units are needed to meet demand, the Xavier University report states.
Until the demand is met, those living in unaffordable housing often have to rely on the aid on agencies like St. Vincent. About 100 to 150 applications for assistance come through St. Vincent a week, said Claire Palmer, a client advocate. Out of those, about a dozen or so are chosen by a team of three or four people who look through the applications and debate who should be given aid. With an average of $300 to $400 given to each applicant, Claire says they need to be selective to stay within budget.
Palmer and a few others on staff sat around a table, reciting the stories of people seeking help. Those they heard from range from a single mother trying to keep a roof over her children’s heads, to an elderly couple behind on utilities.
The group asked each other questions in an attempt to narrow down the applicants. What is this family’s income? Why did that woman lose her job? For many applicants, the only income consists of government benefits. Some are out of work due to an injury.
The process is quite subjective, Palmer said, and deciding who needs help the most is left up to their best judgement.
“That’s the good thing about St. Vincent de Paul: we have guidelines, but you can go with your heart here,” Palmer said. “We’ve had different people come through here who say this should be more scientific. It never works because the human part always comes through.”
After applicants are chosen, they come into the West End office where they talk about what trouble they’re facing.
One couple, Kimberly Newman and David Bertke, applied for help because they were out of work. Newman’s contract at Duke Energy had ended and Bertke lost employment after injuring his knee on a forklift.
They were seeking help for their water bill, for which they owed $900. The couple and Palmer agreed the sky-high bill was likely due to a leaking pipe. They were also paying out of pocket to keep cockroaches at bay which had been infesting the house since they’d moved in.
Bertke said they don’t want to pay for fixes the landlord should be making, but they don’t want to pay for another security deposit, either.
“We’re caught in a Catch-22,” he said. “Do we pay into [the landlord’s] money trap or do I pay to move?”
On top of everything, they were behind on rent and struck a deal with the landlord that has them paying $500 a week. The next day they had to be in eviction court.
Newman said she already had evictions on her record, which as DiNardo says, can make finding decent housing challenging.
“Once you have one eviction filed against you, you enter a different world of rental housing,” DiNardo said. “You have the regular housing, and then you have the sub-world of rental housing.”
In this “sub-world” where tenants pay the same rate for worse housing, DiNardo says landlords tend to ignore problems like Newman and Bertke were facing and often retaliate against complaining tenants by seeking eviction.
It’s difficult to prove such retaliation, he says, especially when one does not have proper representation.
Tianna Henry came to St. Vincent looking for help on a Duke Energy bill of more than $1000. She wasn’t dealing with a vindictive landlord, but did have to deal with poor living conditions.
It was the dead of winter and the Section 8 unit’s heating wasn’t working properly. Henry said she may have considered braving the cold if she were alone, but she wasn’t willing to subject her four young children to such conditions. Later, she couldn’t come back if she wanted to because the unit failed an inspection.
Palmer seemed frustrated and confused with the apparent lack of care such landlords show.
“[Some landlords] don’t really care about fixing things, especially if they don’t live close,” she said. “They’re getting the full amount of rent, so why can’t they run it like a proper business?”
Thanks to Duke Energy’s “winter rule,” tenants can pay a steep discount to have their energy reconnected. In this instance, $175 was needed, and Palmer was quick to write the check for Henry.
Ever since the children’s father died, Henry said it’s been difficult to make ends meet.
“If it wasn’t just me, it might not be so hard,” she said. “I’m just walking on the edge right now.”
After writing the checks, Palmer took the time to talk with everyone about budgeting, as she finds budgeting skills to be vital to keeping one’s head above water.
Try as they may, workers at St. Vincent have a hard time keeping up with those they help. Palmer says she and others will call them to check up, but often don’t hear back once the person walks out the door.
If you can’t find help to pay off your rent or utilities, you face an even tougher challenge: Ohio’s justice system. In Ohio, the court is not required to provide tenants with representation, leading to 98 percent of tenants facing court without an attorney, said Rob Wall, director of the Hamilton County Municipal Court Help Center.
Often the only legal assistance tenants get is the free advice provided by the team at the help center. Wall said they often see dozens of people a day, though such a resource is rare in Ohio; Franklin and Hamilton Counties are the only places in Ohio which provide such a service.
If Wall and his team think a case can be taken on, they pass it along to the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati, who represent tenants free of charge. The team at Legal Aid is small, and can only take a select few eviction cases a month out of the thousands which go through the Hamilton County courthouse.
Eviction cases are heard in a small room in the courthouse’s first floor. Blink and you’d miss a case during the proceeding which tend to fly by in seconds. If the tenant comes to defend themselves or are represented by Legal Aid, it could last a little longer – maybe a couple minutes.
To those like Nick DiNardo, the managing attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati, the basic human need for a roof over one’s head is of such vital importance that tenants ought to have court-appointed representation.
“It seems to me if you have a right to an attorney for spending one night in jail, I think you can make a pretty strong argument that the public should have some sort of right to appointment of council,” he said.
New York City began appointing lawyers to tenants in 2017 and according to a 2018 report by New York City’s Human Resources Administration, $77 million was spent on tenant legal services, assisting 33,000 households.
“Eighty-four percent of households represented in court by lawyers were able to remain in their homes, not only saving thousands of tenancies, but also promoting the preservation of affordable housing and neighborhood