CINCINNATI — Shana Nelson-Spurling had all the paperwork she needed to prove she paid her rent.
But a long line at the Hamilton County Courthouse made her a few minutes late for her hearing. She ended up getting evicted before she made it into the courtroom.
“They said I had three days to move,” she said. “I have four kids, so I was not OK with that.”
That’s when Nelson-Spurling went to the Hamilton County Municipal Court Help Center, a partnership of the Hamilton County Clerks of Courts, municipal court, the county commission and the University of Cincinnati College of Law.
There, Help Center Director Rob Wall worked with her to explain the eviction process, the paperwork she had to fill out and how she could present evidence that she had paid her rent to get her eviction overturned.
“It was successful,” Nelson-Spurling said. “It helped.”
A 2018 study conducted as part of The Cincinnati Project at the University of Cincinnati found Hamilton County had nearly 50,000 eviction filings from 2014 through 2017. That’s an average of roughly 12,000 filings per year or more than 230 per week.
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The Help Center’s services reach beyond eviction cases. Still, Wall, his staff and volunteers are on the front lines of a growing effort in Cincinnati and Hamilton County to reduce the number of local evictions -- and the devastating impact they have on tenants, landlords and entire communities.
Cincinnati City Council earlier this month approved the creation of a $227,000 eviction prevention fund to provide emergency assistance to families on the verge of being evicted.
But, as big a deal as that was, it’s only the start, said Councilman Greg Landsman, who championed the creation of the fund.
“The fund really was just the beginning of what is a comprehensive approach that involved a ton of incredible people who come from different places but have this one common goal,” Landsman said. “They are now working on a whole host of things that hopefully, long term, will fundamentally change what happens in the city in terms of people being able to stay in their homes.”
‘A domino effect’
Vanessa White, Landsman’s chief of staff and a former school board member, has convened a group of more than 20 people she calls the “coalition of eviction experts” to work through what steps elected officials should take to reduce the number of evictions in Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
Jeniece Jones said she views the eviction prevention fund as a good first step to addressing the problem, which reaches far beyond the tenants at risk of eviction.
“When evictions occur at the rate they’re occurring in our community in such a hot rental market and the high poverty rate, it destabilizes families,” said Jones, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal in Cincinnati. “And when families destabilize, it destabilizes neighborhoods. And it’s kind of like a domino effect.”
The UC study included a series of recommendations to slow the pace of evictions in Hamilton County. Those included:
• Adoption of a “just cause” eviction ordinance. This would spell out the reasons a landlord can evict a tenant, such as failing to pay rent or because the rental unit needs major repairs.
• Passage of a “pay to stay” ordinance. This would prohibit an owner or property manager from proceeding with an eviction for non-payment of rent if the tenant has the money that he or she owes.
• Right to counsel ordinance. Unlike in criminal court, low-income families facing eviction in municipal court have no right to a lawyer. This ordinance would provide low-income renters with a publicly funded attorney in all court proceedings. The study recommended the city allocate at least $350,000 each year to help cover the costs.
Jones and John Schrider, director of the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio, said they would like to see progress on all of those recommendations.
That would require more funding from city and county government, Schrider said, and local foundations have expressed interest in helping city and county government cover the cost.
“It’s actually pretty amazing that the city has so quickly realized that this is a crisis,” Schrider said.
But some landlords aren’t convinced all those other measures are needed.
The ‘soul-killing part’ of being a landlord
Charles Tassell said he thinks the city should stick to the eviction prevention fund and city council’s plan to find a qualified nonprofit to distribute the money.
Tassell is the owner of Cornerstone Redevelopment and director of governmental affairs for the Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Apartment Association. The city’s eviction prevention fund is a lot like what the apartment association has been doing for years through its nonprofit arm called Apartment Outreach, he said.
Apartment Outreach raises roughly $35,000 per year that it donates to other nonprofit organizations with social workers to identify families that need a relatively small amount of money to avoid being evicted, Tassell said.
“It’s usually one of three situations,” he said. “A health care issue, a car issue or they’ve lost a job and have a new one, but the check hasn’t come in yet.”
For as little as $300, a family often can get caught up on rent and avoid eviction, he said. That saves landlords money, too, because evictions cost landlords anywhere from $1,500 to $6,000 depending on the property, he said.
“It’s the soul-killing part of the job,” Tassell said. “It’s what you avoid at all costs if at all possible.”
Tassell said he and other property owners worry the UC study’s other recommendations would drive up costs and make landlords less likely to take chances on tenants if they thought they couldn’t evict someone with money to pay. Drug dealers and their girlfriends almost always have cash on hand, he said.
“Helping people who really want to do the right thing, that’s where the social workers and prevention fund really hit home,” he said. “These other areas, it may sound good. But it has a bad implication for the rest of society because now the person who’s not being responsible, there’s no consequences for their actions at all.”
‘Not a blame game’
Determining the best ways to reduce evictions will take everyone working together, White said, and educating tenants about their rights and responsibilities will be an important part of the effort.
But if the community can figure out an approach that works, the result could be a reduction in poverty and homelessness, she said.
“It’s not a blame game. It’s really a solutions game,” White said. “We’re trying to get to solutions that work for both tenants and landlords.”
The Help Center is not the only solution, she added, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle.
In its first six months of operation, the Help Center assisted more than 800 tenants in eviction proceedings, and nearly 60 percent of those people won their cases, according to a report Wall prepared on the center’s results.
By way of comparison, tenants who didn’t get assistance from the Help Center won only 10 percent of the time, according to the report.
Kamalah Prophett is another one of the center’s success stories. She went there for help in early 2018 after her former landlord sued her for more than $1,000 in damages to an apartment she had left months before, she said.
Prophett didn’t risk eviction. But losing the case could have meant losing her housing subsidy through the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority, she said.
“It was stressful,” said Prophett, a sales associate for Staples. “And at times I found myself crying.”
With assistance from the Help Center, Prophett represented herself in court and won.
“When you hire a lawyer, they do all the work for you,” she said. “At the Help Center, they coached me to help myself.”
Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval said that’s what the Help Center is all about.
“The Help Center is one of those places that’s actually fighting back, that’s actually balancing the scales of justice,” he said. “We are empowering people to resolve their small claims by themselves.”
All through 2019, 9 On Your Side will provide special coverage of topics dealing with growth and transportation. We’re calling it “Move Up Cincinnati,” and we have a team of reporters covering this topic on air and online at WCPO.com.
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. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.