Agencies distributing rent aid in race against evictions

Cases in area municipal courts will resume when moratorium is lifted.

Millions in federal rental assistance money that is meant to keep people from losing their homes during the pandemic is not getting to landlords fast enough and local housing advocates say a jump in evictions could be looming.

The White House last week extended through July a nationwide moratorium against evictions. It was scheduled to expire at the end of June. Biden administration officials said it was the last time they would extend it.

The moratorium has suspended eviction cases in area municipal courts but cases will resume when the moratorium is lifted.

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A Dayton Daily News investigation has found that most federal rental money awarded to Ohio has yet to reach local agencies who provide the rental assistance. The money that has arrived has been slow to get from those agencies to landlords because of program requirements.

Matthew Currie, managing attorney for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc., said a spike in eviction filings and court-ordered move outs is looming if the aid doesn’t get to renters and their landlords.

It’s unclear how big, or sudden, the eviction increase could be once the moratorium ends.

“I don’t think we’re going to double the number of cases but I think there will be an uptick,” said Dayton Municipal Court Clerk Mark Owens.

Eviction filings are down in recent months compared to previous years. Dayton Municipal Court had 142 evictions filed each month in April and May, compared to 186 and 240 in April and May 2019, pre-pandemic.

Owens said the recent drop is likely due to some landlords holding off on filing for eviction because of the moratorium and to renters catching up on payments with help from stimulus payments and other federal aid.

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The moratorium doesn’t prevent housing providers from filing for evictions. But it allows judges to postpone the cases during the moratorium if tenants sign a form attesting that they are unable to pay their rent despite making their best effort.

Owens said his court doesn’t track how many cases are on hold because such forms were filed. Other courts do. Miami County Municipal Court has been averaging a couple dozen eviction filings a month in recent months, and currently has 12 evictions that are on hold because of the moratorium.

In Kettering Municipal Court there were 554 eviction cases started from March 2019 to February 2020, and 344 from March 2020 to February 2021. Court officials say there are fewer than five still on hold because of the moratorium. In most cases an eviction case has gone through because the lease expired or the tenant violated part of the lease other than non-payment of rent.

When the moratorium ends, the tenants will still have to pay back-rent that accrued while the case was suspended.

“If they filed that and it was granted by the court then they didn’t go through with the eviction, but if they owed money they still have to pay that,” Owens said.

Bill Faith, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, said the Biden administration’s decision to extend the moratorium could prevent thousands of Ohioans from losing their homes.

“Rent relief is on the way, but many renters are caught in a paperwork race between eviction courts and local agencies, who are often short-staffed and inundated with rental assistance applications,” said Faith in a statement. “This extension gives everyone a little more time to catch up so families don’t get evicted unnecessarily.”

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Historic funding levels

Federal lawmakers allocated historic amounts of money to help prevent evictions during the pandemic. Ohio’s community action agencies have access to $195 million to help tenants pay rent, utility and mortgages, and state officials are working to allocate another $465 million.

Since the beginning of the pandemic the Miami Valley Community Action Partnership (MVCAP) – which serves Montgomery, Greene, Darke, Preble and Warren counties – has received more than $20 million to provide rent, mortgage and utility assistance.

MVCAP is awaiting another $36.3 million that was appropriated by Congress in December, its share of the $465 million being allocated by the state.

MVCAP officials say they have processed more than 4,200 rental assistance applications between the beginning of 2020 and May 31, 2021.

MVCAP officials would not comment on whether they are facing issues delaying getting aid to renters.

Montgomery County last year contracted MVCAP to administer $5 million in federal rental assistance. The agency helped roughly 1,600 tenants. But a Dayton Daily News investigation found in the rush to get aid out the door, money was paid out improperly to some landlords of uninhabitable properties or units where rent was allegedly paid by other programs.

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Montgomery County in April 2020 used federal funds to create a $15.8 million rental assistance program administered jointly by Catholic Social Services, Goodwill Easter Seals, Homefull and Salvation Army.

So far the agencies have spent $1.6 million and 438 applications have been approved, according to county officials.

Asked if there is anything that can be done to speed up the process, county spokeswoman Deb Decker said: “Having more agencies available to provide case management is a possibility we will consider.”

“We know it’s a detailed process and there are many requirements that have to be met, but these are federal funds being distributed so the numerous procedures are necessary to determine if an applicant is truly worthy,” Decker said. “We encourage both the applicants and landlords to quickly respond to information requests from our partner agencies so we can expedite the distribution of funds.”

Patience urged for landlords

The United Way Helpline, 211, takes initial calls for assistance. They refer people to legal aid if an eviction is imminent, and they send them to the agencies that help with rental assistance. They also provide help with food, utilities and other costs so that the renters have more money to make rent payments.

United Way spokeswoman Amy Kettner didn’t provide numbers on how many applications they referred to the agencies for rental assistance. But she said obstacles have included gaps in funding and requirements that aid go only to people impacted by COVID.

“Rental assistance and utility assistance have been the top needs in our 211 call center for the past 10 years,” she said. “It is an old issue that is being exacerbated by the pandemic.”

The American Rescue Plan, passed this year, appropriates billions more for rental assistance without requiring those who get help to have been impacted by the pandemic.

“It’s definitely the best funded it has ever been, but I don’t know if it will be disbursed in time to make the impact it was intended to,” she said.

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Janice Kemmer, president of the Greater Dayton Real Estate Investors Association, said housing providers and landlords would rather work with tenants and get back rent than evict them. But they can’t wait forever.

“Responsible landlords, if the tenants come and talk to us, are willing to work with them,” she said. “We still have mortgages, taxes, insurance, water to pay, all the other stuff. So if we don’t have any income to pay for that, that’s kind of difficult.”

Ohio Poverty Law Center attorney Graham Bowman urged patience from landlords.

“Emergency rental assistance is a win-win for both parties. It allows tenants to stay in their homes and ensures landlords can recover up to 12 months of back rent from tenants impacted by the pandemic. But only if they agree not to evict,” Bowman said.

“Eviction drives families deeper into poverty, and makes it extremely difficult to find housing in the future. Let’s work together to keep Ohio tenants safely housed and make landlords whole.”

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