Just before Christmas, Columbus evictions proceed despite safety questions

Eviction court at the Greater Columbus Convention Center. Critics say court officials are herding too many people into the space without taking proper covid precautions - including allowing people who say they don't feel well to stay. Photo by Marty Schladen, Ohio Capital Journal.

It might be Christmas, but the cruelties of the coronavirus refuse to abate. In addition to all its other horrors, large numbers of central Ohioans are being ordered into an eviction court that appears to have little regard for the disease’s spread.

A partial federal moratorium against putting people out of their homes will be extended through January if President Trump signs a stimulus deal passed this week by Congress. But that doesn’t mean that eviction proceedings aren’t continuing in Ohio. 

In Columbus, a hundred or more people are herding into the Greater Columbus Convention Center at 9 a.m. every weekday to answer a “cattle call” for cases to be heard. That’s raising serious questions about the safety of all involved.

On Tuesday, the contents of visitors’ purses and backpacks were inspected more carefully than the people entering. A masked court official merely asked if folks were feeling sick before they sent their effects down the belt and through the scanner.

Then people waited in a non-socially-distanced line to check in and mill around until they got assistance or their cases were called. Proper mask wearing was spotty.

This in one of the most crowded cities in a state where there’s a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew intended to stop people from gathering. The idea, expressed many, many times by Gov. Mike DeWine, is to slow the spread of a virus that has killed more than 8,300 Ohioans and infected 645,000.

The Ohio Poverty Law Center and other groups earlier this month attempted to highlight the issue by asking Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor to renew her springtime call for a moratorium on local eviction proceedings.

Health experts have argued that evictions will make coronavirus spread faster by forcing people out of their homes and into settings where they’ll mix with a lot more people — either in the houses of family and friends, shelters or on the streets. 

On Tuesday, it was easy to see why many are worried that eviction proceedings themselves could help the disease to spread.

Asked if he thought it was safe for so many to gather in the midst of a hot pandemic, James Mackey of the Columbus Legal Aid Society said, “No, absolutely not.”

He was standing behind a table, talking to people who wandered up with their eviction notices. Nodding at long tables running along the hall and manned by social-service organizations, Mackey said many renters are able to get funds from an earlier round of coronavirus relief, settle their debts and stay in their places. Others agree with landlords on a time to leave, he said.

Those that remain — often tenants who fail to appear when summoned — are usually evicted by the court.

But it’s hard to see how it could be safe to run one of the nation’s busiest eviction courts in the manner that the Franklin County Municipal Court is. According to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, the 7,845 evictions filed in Columbus since March 15 is the fifth-highest of any of the 27 major cities tracked by the project.

“It’s been pretty exhausting,” Mackey said of the caseload. “It’s been pretty non-stop.”

Kate McGarvey is executive director of the Ohio State Legal Services Association, an umbrella organization of legal aid societies covering 36 counties in Central and Southeastern Ohio — including Columbus’s. 

She said the partial eviction moratorium declared earlier this year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention left many with the wrong impression. People are still having to go to court, it’s just ejection from their homes that has been delayed.

“It’s not the moratorium people think it is,” she said, describing the morning crowds. “We’ve been really worried about it.”

As the pandemics grip has tightened on Franklin County and the rest of Ohio, some safety precautions at the makeshift court at the convention center have loosened, McGarvey said.

“Now they’ve started this sick zone… where instead of just turning you away if you say you don’t feel well, they send you to a zone with other sick people which people have to walk by to get in and out,” she said.  “If somebody reports that they’re feeling unwell, why in the world would you not immediately get them out of there?”

In an email after this story originally published, Franklin County Municipal Court Administrative Judge Ted Barrows said the eviction hearings have been held with coronavirus safety in mind. 

“We moved these hearings out of the Municipal Court with total regard for disease spread, since we could not ensure adequate social distancing in and around our courtrooms at the Municipal Court building,” he said.  “We have consulted with the Columbus Health Department every step of the way and followed their guidance.”

As for the sick area, Barrows said the Columbus Health Department had told the court that taking temperatures was not an effective way to screen people for coronavirus.

“The ‘sick zone’ is a location apart from court participants where follow-up questions can be asked so that the magistrates can be informed and the case can be continued,” he said. “We have also offered to all the partner agencies to whom we have provided space, to place any pamphlets or other information at a table in this location, so that those being sent home can get some  guidance that may assist them in getting the help they might have accessed had we let them in to the court area.  In point of fact, I am informed by security that in a given day so far, no more than three people have been  turned away in this manner, and clearly not all at the same time.”

However, many of the people ordered into the court didn’t feel safe.

Daria Malone, who was there to fight an eviction from her apartment on Columbus’s southeast side, agreed that it was a bad idea to hold mass eviction proceedings in the middle of the pandemic.

“There’s too many people in here, but they don’t care,” she said. “They just care about the money.”

She said she paid her back rent on Dec. 10, but received an eviction notice the same day. 

Her neighbor, Jenessa Sloan, said she hadn’t received an eviction notice, but was expecting to, so she was trying to get ahead of the process. Sloan, 35, said she and her six children were homeless two years ago when they found their $800-a-month apartment. She lost her call center job and is falling behind, she said.

What does she expect Christmas to be like?

“Not good,” Sloan said. “Not good at all.”

McGarvey said that if the Franklin County court isn’t going to suspend eviction proceedings as Dayton has, it could make them safer by following the lead of other Ohio jurisdictions.

For example, it could spread cases through the day, instead of calling all of them at 9 a.m., she said. 

Not everybody present at the convention center court Tuesday was dismayed at the proceedings.

“They should go down,” a middle-aged man who declined to give his name, said. “We’ve got a lot of people who don’t pay their rent.”

The owner of three Olde Town East duplexes said he had a tenant who hadn’t paid rent in eight months and showed no interest in doing so. Saying that the man should be in jail, the landlord added that he didn’t much care about the back rent.

“I don’t want the money, I just want him out,” he said.

For landlords who are in need of rent money to cover mortgages and other expenses, help should be on the way. The stimulus bill passed by Congress — but yet to be signed by President Trump — contains $25 billion for rental assistance.

For now, anyway, the makeshift Franklin County eviction court is likely to grind grimly on.

Inside the courtroom itself — held in one of the convention center’s smaller breakout rooms — covid safety seemed to be taken more seriously. 

People weren’t allowed to stand; they had to plant themselves in one of the carefully spaced chairs. Mask wearing was more conscientious than it was outside. One lawyer even had a cloth covering on top of an N-95 mask.

As Mackey had said, the great majority of people whose evictions were heard weren’t present. 

Seated high up on a riser, Magistrate Danielle Sparks listened to lawyers and their landlords plead their cases to evict tenants that were anywhere from two to eight months behind on their rent. She asked if there was recent evidence that the tenants still occupied the property.

“Based on your testimony, recommend judgment,” she said almost every time. 

In one case, a landlord’s attorney said a tenant claimed he couldn’t come because he was hospitalized with covid. After his landlord reported seeing the television on in the man’s apartment, Sparks said that unless the tenant could furnish proof that he was hospitalized for it, that wasn’t an adequate excuse. Then she recommended that he be evicted, too.

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