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Hamilton County to restart eviction hearings nearly a month early, catching defendants off-guard

Posted at 2:07 PM, Jun 04, 2020

CINCINNATI — The Hamilton County Municipal Court will resume in-person eviction hearings Monday, nearly a full month earlier than judges and defendants had planned.

The result, a victory for some landlords who could not evict tenants during the early COVID-19 pandemic, could be “chaos” for lawyers and defendants who were not prepared to argue their cases until July, said Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio managing attorney Nick DiNardo.

"There are folks who have court starting on Monday of next week who were told their hearing was postponed,” he said. “And now they're not going to get legally effective notice, and it's going to create chaos.”

The last Hamilton County eviction hearings were held March 15, according to a lawsuit filed by local attorney Chris Finney on behalf of the real estate firm Salvador Properties.

FROM APRIL: Across Greater Cincinnati, renters worry about eviction in the time of COVID-19

On May 29, judges Charles Kubicki and Heather Russell announced that Hamilton County courts would open to only a handful of case types during the month of June, including criminal cases, “emergency civil matters” such as requests for restraining orders and “matters that cannot reasonably be accomplished remotely through teleconferencing." The earliest eviction hearings could begin was July 1.

Finney filed his suit days later, arguing that being unable to evict tenants left landlords unable to deal with genuine problem situations in their properties.

“This means not only that landlords can’t clear their properties of tenants who won’t pay rent, but also that tenants who deal drugs, damage property — or even worse criminal behavior — can stay in possession now for more than five months before the landlord can have a hearing to restore possession of the property to him,” he wrote in a short case summary posted to his web site.

Tenant rights advocates across the country have argued since the first pandemic-related layoffs, which hollowed out major customer-facing industries in a matter of days, that affected renters should be granted some legal relief from eviction proceedings and rent payments. Seth Weber and Andrew Watts, who serve on the steering committee for the Cincinnati Tenants Union, are renters themselves who say tenants need support “now more than ever.”

“I’m unemployed, still,” Weber said. “I work at a restaurant, and they still have not opened.”

They know firsthand just how hard many people still have it, even as some businesses begin to reopen.

“The effects of COVID haven’t stopped just because it’s been a couple of months,” Watts said.

Newly unemployed people in Ohio and Kentucky said they were frequently stymied by broken websites and hours-long call times, preventing them from correcting errors on their applications or receiving the payments for which they believed they were qualified.

RELATED: You've fallen through the cracks of unemployment. Now what?

Watts and Weber are now calling for a rent and mortgage freeze, so news that the courts are reopening makes their cause urgent.

“I’m worried about it. We’re in communication with a tenant right now who’s in a situation where he has a disability and his landlord hasn’t been very accommodating to that disability,” Weber said.

DiNardo said pre-COVID, Cincinnati and Southwest Ohio already had an extreme affordable housing shortage. Legal Aid is not calling for a rent strike, but a temporary moratorium like Kentucky and Indiana implemented could help landlords pay their own bills and keep tenants in their homes.

“There’s a lot of challenges that we’re facing, and what we really need at this point is time to be able to help get people who are eligible for assistance and help slow things down in the court system so we don’t have all of our homeless shelters full in a couple of weeks,” Dinardo said.

DiNardo noted that Hamilton County has millions of dollars ready to help people avoid eviction by paying landlords the back rent they are owed. That might not be enough for everyone, however — and the nonprofit organizations working to help tenants, including Legal Aid, are overwhelmed with requests for help.

Evictions typically take roughly 30 days from initial notice, and with the backlog, tenants may have slightly longer. For updates on court dates, reach out to the Clerk of Courts office here.