Ohio leaders must address poverty and homelessness for public health response to succeed

Crystal Hererra, 30, sits for a portrait in the passenger seat of her husband’s car as they wait in the drive-through pickup area of the All People’s Fresh Market food pantry in Columbus, Ohio on July 28, 2020. Hererra’s husband has been receiving the $600 weekly unemployment bonus subsidy that has been helping to support Crystal and their five children. She is unsure how they will be able to survive now that it's ended. (Brooke LaValley/ Ohio Capital Journal)

Rent was due on Tuesday and many Ohioans will be unable to pay because of a slowly unfolding recession that, according to the World Bank, may be the worst since World War II. Congress appears less and less likely to extend assistance to unemployed families while Gov. Mike DeWine has yet to prop up Ohio’s safety-net. Like many advocates for low-income Ohioans, I watch each press conference with a growing sense of dread of what the next weeks and months will bring. 

As Ohio’s unemployment rate hovers around 9%, many renters will find a notice from their landlord posted to their door from their landlord telling them they have three days to leave the property or else an eviction will be filed in court and a judge will throw them out. Many will take their chances in court, asking for mercy and just a little more time. Some will have the help of a legal aid program that is trying to hold back a coming avalanche of evictions. The whole process only takes four to six weeks.

In October 2019 the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development Case Western Reserve University released a study on evictions in Cleveland. According to the study, a typical story looks something like this:

A 41-year-old single Black mother with two children lost her job two months ago because the restaurant where she worked as a server closed their dining room due to the pandemic. She was earning about $1,200 a month and pays over half of her income in rent, which according to Housing and Urban Development means she is in severe danger of losing her housing.

She will explain to the court how she applied for unemployment benefits but has not been approved yet because she had several jobs last year and her case is complicated. She canceled her cell phone plan to save money and uses the neighbor’s Wi-Fi. Her friend works at a home and garden store though and said they are hiring. Once she gets a new job, she will be able to pay her rent but not for a few weeks. The magistrate will ask a few questions: When was the last time you were paid? How much? A legal aid attorney stands beside her and verifies the problems with her unemployment application. The attorney, with a dozen other identical cases on her mind, explains that the client is eligible for a small amount of assistance from the community action agency, but the landlord is unwilling to negotiate. 

The entire hearing took only three minutes and twenty seconds. 

The magistrate, the lawyer, and the community action agency move on to the next family. The assistance money is running out and maybe the next family can be helped. In some counties there never was any assistance available. Where this family and others in similar situations go next is anyone’s guess. Some will double-up with friends or relatives for a time. Some will file into the family homeless shelter. But nearly all will endure months of uncertainty and chaos as they try to find stable housing and to keep their children connected to online schooling. 

The Ohio Poverty Law Center works to remove barriers to the most urgent issues identified by our legal aid partners. If we speak out on a topic it is because there are attorneys representing low-income Ohioans across the state who are struggling with that issue every day. 

What I remember most about March 13, 2020, when our collective quarantine began, was talking to the Columbus housing attorneys who represent families like the hypothetical one discussed above. They practice in Franklin County Municipal Court, which has the highest eviction rate in the state with a pre-pandemic average of 75 households called into eviction court every day. We fretted over how if the virus spreads through the air like the flu, that meant the courtroom itself was potentially deadly to everyone involved — landlords, tenants, lawyers, staff, and judges. And, while before the pandemic, evictions were always a personal tragedy with long-term impacts on families, now each eviction hearing was a game of Russian Roulette. The entire chain of events is a roadmap for catching and spreading the virus throughout the community.

We reached out to the governor’s office and the Ohio Supreme Court and, thankfully, with their encouragement, most courts in Ohio instituted a freeze on evictions for non-payment of rent. Soon after, Congress passed the CARES Act which provided families with a one-time stimulus check of $1,200 and enhanced unemployment benefits that kept them afloat. The combination of the eviction moratoriums and federal assistance meant that our worst fears did not immediately materialize. 

Five months into the crisis, most courts are again hearing eviction cases and there is an inexplicable sense that the looming housing crisis has dissipated even though the underlying conditions are much worse. The Columbus Convention Center, once set as a field hospital to treat COVID-19 patients, is now hosting the reopened eviction court to better enforce social distancing. According to an analysis by Reinvestment Fund, if current employment trends hold and no new assistance is provided then between $42.6 and $95.9 million in rent could go unpaid in Ohio every month. Over time this could translate into thousands of additional evictions as a growing number of families fall behind on rent. 

All of the federal support for families evaporated last month and has not been replaced. The only things standing between the current drip of evictions and a torrent is the collective forgiveness of landlords who rely on rent to pay their mortgage and some locally funded rental assistance programs. 

It is a recipe for disaster.

Yet, state leaders remain silent. The conversation is focused on school sports, mask mandates, and public gatherings. OPLC and its partners have been calling on the governor to allocate a portion of the state’s unspent $1.15 billion in federal relief dollars on rental assistance and other safety-net needs. 

When asked, the governor says that the unspent relief dollars are needed for testing and contact tracing. He astutely points out that if we cannot control the virus then the collective suffering will be enormous. I agree with him. But also, I am not creative enough to imagine how that hypothetical family could possibly comply with social distancing practices or participate in contact tracing in a homeless shelter. There are hundreds of thousands of households at risk of eviction in Ohio. How is any of this going to work collectively? At least seven other states, including Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Florida are providing more than $100 million in rental assistance. Ohio can do the same.

Families need to have stable housing right now for Ohio to beat the virus and, afterward, work towards economic recovery. Rental assistance is not a luxury — it is part of the foundation on which the larger public health response is made possible. September’s rent was due yesterday, and without the promise of rental assistance, a predictable series of tragedies will soon follow. The governor needs to act now.