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A new wave of evictions could soon hit Hamilton Co. Her story shows how devastating that could be

'It's kind of like quicksand getting out'
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Posted at 5:00 AM, Jul 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-24 09:01:45-04

CINCINNATI — Seraunna S. Smith was working a part-time job in retail and taking classes in real estate and business law when she fell behind on her rent.

“You know retail, it’s when we have the hours, we give them to you. When we don’t, we don’t,” Smith said. “It left me with lack of work sometimes.”

That made it hard to keep up with all the bills. Smith had struggled with rent more than once during the two and a half years that she lived at her old apartment. The landlord had let her pay late in the past, she said, but this time he filed for eviction.

Smith became homeless in July 2019, she said. She stayed in motel rooms for a while and with friends and relatives. Smith slept in her car some nights. By March, Smith went to stay at the Esther Marie Hatton Center for Women in hopes that being at a homeless shelter would give her the “nudge” she needed to move forward.

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Esther Marie Hatton Center for Women

The coronavirus pandemic hit soon after, and the shelter moved Smith and all the other women there to hotel rooms so they could stay safe from COVID-19. For nearly four months, Smith stayed at the hotel before recently moving back to the shelter. She has been working full time at Amazon, saving her money and calling property after property to find a safe, decent, affordable place where she and her son can live.

But every time property managers see “eviction” on her record, she said, she gets rejected.

“With the application fees ranging anywhere from $15 to $40, I have spent in essence $225 on application fees to be rejected because of the eviction,” she said. “Once you get in, it’s kind of like quicksand getting out, you know. It’s a horrible position to be in.”

It’s also a position that has become painfully common here.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Cincinnati and Hamilton County had eviction rates nearly double the national average, said Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval.

He and others fear the problem could get even worse as two federal protections are set to expire at the end of this week: additional unemployment payments that have provided renters with the money they needed to stay in their homes and the moratorium on evictions from federally backed housing.

“After COVID-19 hit, that’s only put more stress on that existing problem,” Pureval said. “We are all very concerned when those two protections go away that evictions will skyrocket in Hamilton County.”

‘A snowball effect’

The Hamilton County Clerk of Courts had a backlog of 865 first-time eviction filings as of July 20, Pureval said.

Since Hamilton County’s municipal court judges decided to resume eviction hearings in early June, the court has been hearing dozens of older eviction cases each day to work through the more than 1,200 eviction filings that built up during the early months of the pandemic, said Nick DiNardo, managing attorney for the housing and consumer practice group at the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio LLC.

“It sounds like we’re going to be up to 75 (evictions) plus a day sometime in late July, early August, because that’s when the more recent cases that have been filed will start being heard,” DiNardo said. “It’s not like it’s all going to happen at once. It’s more of a snowball effect.”

Quicksand or snowball, either way renters like Smith, who get evictions on their records, get stuck, said Mary Burke Rivers, executive director of Over-the-Rhine Community Housing.

Is it as simple as ‘pay the rent'?

Archived photo of an eviction.

That’s because on top of the eviction problem, the region also has a severe shortage of affordable housing.

Hamilton County has a deficit of 40,000 housing units that are affordable and available to extremely low-income households, or those that earn less than $14,678 per year.

And four of the county’s top five jobs don’t pay enough to afford a two-bedroom rental, according to a community housing plan released in May.

“It’s kind of abstract until you come in contact with a person like this one,” Rivers said of Smith. “Employed, has an eviction and can’t find anything decent and affordable – affordable for the income that she earns.”

Because of that, people working as grocery store clerks, home health aides and child care workers end up paying far more than 30% of their monthly income for rent, Rivers said. That 30% of monthly income is the standard measure for what is “affordable.”

“There are lots of people in Hamilton County and Cincinnati paying more than 50% of their income, and that’s not sustainable,” she said. “Eventually it’s going to catch up. You can’t put all your resources to your rent and not have something fall apart.”

When it does fall apart, like it did for Smith, if often takes months before people become literally homeless, said Arlene Nolan, executive director of Shelterhouse, which operates Hamilton County’s largest emergency shelters for individual men and the Esther Marie Hatton Center for Women, where Smith is staying.

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Seraunna Smith during a Zoom interview with WCPO.

Once people enter a shelter, there are programs in place that prioritize help for people who are veterans, survivors of domestic violence or who have serious mental illness or are recovering from substance abuse.

Smith doesn’t fall into any of those categories, which means there are no special programs to help her.

“The limitations have always existed because the funding is structured the way it is,” Nolan said. “Funding that comes down from the federal government is specifically intended for those folks – the chronically homeless veterans, people with domestic violence or some kind of disability.”

‘Nobody wants to be homeless’

The theory is that people like Smith, who don’t have those additional challenges, should have an easier time getting back on their feet, Nolan said.

But the reality is very different.

“It would be really beneficial for people like this lady if the system could have gotten to her in time to prevent the eviction,” Nolan said. “It’s almost a shame that she had to even enter the shelter system. Because it’s a lot harder to get out of homelessness once you’re in the system, so to speak.”

That’s what Smith has found.

She has two legal pads, she said, filled with places she has called or visited or both to try to find a new place where she and her son could live.

Every day she isn’t working, she spends her time calling or driving around, she said, only to be rejected because her record includes eviction or to be disgusted by the quality of the apartments and the rents being charged.

“Nobody wants to be homeless,” Smith said. “But to give you $700 or $800 a month for a place that looks like a shack with a toilet is difficult for me to swallow.”

Smith felt “stuck” for a while when she first became homeless, she said.

Now she feels determined.

“I’ve been in tough situations,” she said. “I’m a single mom.”

She’s working and saving as much as she can while she pays off bills and rebuilds her credit.

And she’s waiting to hear back from the Ohio Department of Commerce Division of Real Estate and Professional Licensing about taking her real estate exam.

Now more than ever, she said, she knows how important it is to have a place to call home, and that makes her all the more passionate about a career in real estate.

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Some of the real estate materials that Seraunna Smith is studying.

“I’m excited about taking my tests and just keep cramming away and making sure everything’s up there,” she said. “So when they send me that test date that I’m ready, and I pass the first time and I just keep moving forward and doing what I’m doing to be more stable and, of course, to be more successful.”

Smith said she hopes one day to be able to look back on her experience with homelessness and help others stuck in the quicksand that she is so eager to escape.

“I want to be somebody,” she said, “that can give back.”

The Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio is urging people to contact their United States senators and ask them to extend rental assistance during the coronavirus pandemic. Information about how to contact your senators is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for Lucy and for WCPO 9 News. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.