With pandemic protections expired, evictions keeping Butler County courts busy

Credit: Rich Pedroncelli

Credit: Rich Pedroncelli

“Hamilton Municipal Court has eviction hearings every Wednesday at 10:30,” said Jon Ford, before suggesting that observers might want to get there early, too. “You might have to stand in the hall if the room’s too full.”

Ford, a senior attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio, is one of three aid attorneys whose practice includes representing Butler County tenants that are facing evictions.

There was a time, Ford said, when pandemic-spurred federal eviction moratoriums brought the county’s caseload down. Those protections have since expired.

“From my perspective, for quite a while now, we’ve been back to business as usual, or more,” Ford said. “When I go into court now, it’s very busy.”

Hamilton Municipal, located only a block away from Ford’s office, is one of six courts in Butler County that hold regular eviction hearings. Middletown Municipal, Fairfield Municipal, Oxford’s Area Court I, Hamilton’s Area Court II (the default court of the county’s unincorporated areas), and West Chester Twp.’s Area Court III round out the county’s network.

Ford said the amount of filings in each court is dependent on the eviction landscape in the area each specific court covers. Generally, the area courts have fewer filings while Hamilton and Middletown tend to have packed dockets.

Historically, those packed dockets have resulted in high eviction filing rates in Butler County, according to Princeton University’s EvictionLab, a national eviction tracker that publishes modeled eviction data for each county in the country.

Modeling from EvictionLab shows that Butler County had an estimated 10.3 eviction filings per 100 rental households in 2018, the most recent year in the lab’s record. That rate was the second highest of Ohio’s 88 counties that year, behind only Lucas County.

Comparatively, Hamilton County posted an estimated 7.9 filings per 100 rental households and Montgomery County posted a rate of 6.3 that same year.

In fact, Butler County has posted the highest estimated eviction filing rate of any southwest Ohio county in each of the 19 years EvictionLab has data from — spanning from 2000 to 2018. The county’s modeled rate peaked in 2005 at 14.6 filings per 100 rental households, but has never dipped below 10.

Eviction hearings are heard in two parts. The first cause is more or less synchronous with the common understanding of an eviction. A judge decides whether or not a landlord has the grounds to force the tenant to vacate and can then dismiss the case, stay the case, or order the tenant to vacate.

The tenants who were ordered to vacate last Wednesday at Hamilton Municipal’s hearings had to vacate their rental units Friday.

If a first cause results in an order to vacate, the case can then move on to a second cause. A second cause is only necessary if the landlord wants the court to order the evicted tenant to pay for missing rent, late fees, or damage to the rental unit beyond ordinary wear and tear.

For Hamilton Municipal, second causes occur in a second hearing about a month after the first. The landlord pitches the amount they believe they are owed and the judge decides whether that assessment is fair, or adjusts it accordingly.

Filings don’t necessarily mean the tenants were forced to vacate, but there aren’t too many ways to dismiss or even delay an eviction complaint, Ford said.

“If it seems apparent that the landlord has a legal basis for filing and has followed the statute in terms of the procedure of an eviction, there may not be much we can do,” he said. “If there are no legal defenses to raise, then we may be able to negotiate some kind of a move out that would be beneficial to the tenant.”

In those instances, attorneys can try to negotiate a smaller bill at the second cause hearing or try to remove the record of the eviction after a tenant’s been forced to vacate. An attorney can also work to delay the eviction in order to buy the tenant more time.

Understanding the now-expired moratorium

Evictions were easier to delay when the CDC’s eviction moratorium — the broadest eviction protection granted during the pandemic — was in effect. It expired at the end of July 2021 after several extensions.

Ford called the CDC’s moratorium an “imperfect Band-Aid,” but laments the loss of a protection for those he represented.

The CDC moratorium didn’t stop eviction complaints from being filed with the court, nor did it automatically protect tenants. Instead, it was an opt-in protection for specific tenants that could prove their financial situation had been impacted by the pandemic.

“I think it was a complicated and flawed tool that didn’t always protect the people that needed protection from it,” Ford said. He said the opt-in nature of the protection meant that folks could fall through the cracks.

“There were certainly no shortage of evictions being filed where tenants qualified for protection under the CDC order, but maybe just didn’t know the hoops they needed to jump through in order to get the protections,” Ford said.

This problem was exacerbated by the reality that most tenants facing eviction don’t have a legal representative. Evictions are a civil matter, so public defenders are not an option. Naturally, pricey private counsel is rare, Ford said.

“We’re kind of the main place,” he said. “The gist of it is, as a whole, we get many, many, many more calls for help than we can ever fill.”

Twenty-six cases were heard at Hamilton Municipal’s eviction hearings last week, which was described as a relatively tame week by Ford, landlord attorney Michael Haas and the presiding Magistrate Jeffrey Giuliano.

On the day, landlords were represented by an attorney in 24 of 26 cases, while tenants were represented in two of those 26 cases.

“The vast, vast majority of tenants are not represented,” Ford said.

Ford said the courts also navigated the CDC moratorium differently, which added to the complication of the order.

If a tenant facing eviction qualified for protections and accurately used the CDC order as a defense, some courts would dismiss the eviction complaint entirely, while other courts would push the case further and further into the future.

Moratoriums also never forgave missing rent or removed the obligation to pay rent, Ford said. What the moratorium could do was essentially buy time for qualified folks to find ways to get caught up on their rent.

“[For some], that rent arrearage continued to accrue,” Ford said. “Even if they were able to stave off the eviction in the short term, what might happen is that a few months later, when the protection dropped, they’re looking at a rent bill that’s thousands and thousands of dollars.”

Tenants struggle to fight evictions

Now that the CDC moratorium is gone, tenant attorneys like Ford and the tenants themselves are left with fewer ways to push back evictions.

“Any time that you lose a potential protection, it’s going to be more challenging,” Ford said.

One persisting way of delaying or even curtailing evictions is through the federally-funded rental assistance program administered here in Butler County by the community action agency Supports to Encourage Low-income Families (SELF).

The program is specifically for folks behind on their bills and can show that COVID impacted their finances.

“I wouldn’t say it has stopped the filing of evictions, but we have certainly been able to use that as a tool to keep people in their homes and get the eviction dismissed,” Ford said.

As of Aug. 1, folks in Butler County temporarily cannot apply for the rental assistance program due to a backlog of unprocessed applications, according to SELF spokesperson Rachel Sheets.

“At the beginning of this month, we had more than 300 applications on our wait list and our staff just couldn’t seem to get ahead,” Sheets said. “That’s why we decided to put this pause — to make sure that we can serve the people who have applied.”

Ford said rental assistance programs have been a “big change” in the eviction landscape since federal protections expired, but added that he’s worried that assistance will become harder to access as the funds dry up. Even with those funds circulating, eviction filings have seemed to return to pre-pandemic levels.

“I’m very concerned about the rental assistance funds being more scarce,” Ford said. “That, coupled with the rise in rents and the lack of availability of housing, I think we’re in a very challenging time right now that’s about to get more challenging.”

How to seek rental assistance

Rental assistance is available in Ohio. Information is online at. ohiolegalhelp.org/resource/butler-county-emergency-rental-assistance.

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