Wednesday's Columbus Metropolitan Club forum focused on Franklin County's eviction rate, which is the highest in the state.
As Mike Foley reports, it's a complex problem with no easy solution.
While Columbus and central Ohio recovered from the Great Recession more quickly than other regions, studies have noted that pockets of economic disparity remain. A Dispatch series earlier this year titled “Dividing Lines” highlighted the closeness of those gaps, including a median household income difference of $70,000 when comparing Clintonville with North Linden just a couple miles away. About one in three Franklin County residents live paycheck to paycheck. Average rents in central Ohio have increased 4 percent the last two years. Columbus Urban League president Stephanie Hightower says at one point in 2015, 354 families per week faced eviction. Hightower details what her organization’s seen so far this year.
“We have had over 732 people that have come to us looking for help as it relates to landlord/tenant mediation, rental counseling - 380 of those people that we had to go into direct mediation with. About 143 people did remain in that housing after we were able to mediate. We dealt with about 66 folks who we had to find alternative rental and housing for them, and then we had about 5 folks we had to send to legal aid based upon eviction.”
Not surprisingly, a failure to pay rent triggers the eviction process. Connect Realty founder Brad DeHays says the tenant receives a 3-day notice and a forbearance agreement to extend the payment timeframe, but not all landlords follow that. If there’s no partial repayment plan established, the eviction heads to court. Franklin County Municipal Court remains the state’s busiest eviction docket, with about 19,000 such filings per year. DeHays says evictions are a product of the housing shortage, which has been estimated at 54,000 units.
“About 1,300 units are being built downtown, obviously those are market rate. But I’m just putting that in perspective as to how scary that is. We all think downtown is booming. All those cranes, all that construction, all that money being put in - that’s 1,300 units. We’re 54,000 units short. Now one of the things we found out about evictions, it’s about the timing. With the fragile nature of everybody’s income gap, the timing of assistance is critical.”
YWCA President Elfi DiBella agrees and notes the stigma an eviction carries.
“Sometimes in order to keep a family from becoming homeless or from being able to not pay their rent, it’s just a small stipend. Sometimes it’s hard for our families while they are still housed but they are vulnerable. So they need that financial assistance and there is financial assistance in the community, but sometimes it’s not readily available. We can look at tenant and landlord relationships. There are many landlords who don’t want to rent to somebody who has been formerly homeless or has an eviction, and I think we need to have that communication that these are good people, they just had bad things happen to them.”
There’s a pilot project being developed to strengthen the communication lines between tenants and property owners. And actions like improving the wage gap, building more affordable housing and offering more affordable child care are all widely-supported. The disagreement comes in how to get there. For Hightower though, it’s pretty straight forward.
“When something’s not going right, somebody has this brainchild that we have to create something new. But the reality is what we’re not doing is we’re not supporting the entities that already exist that are doing the work. The expertise is in the room, the expertise is in our community. But how do we help these entities build capacity so that we can have more affordable housing, those incentives and those programs. This is about racism to a certain extent too. When you look at the numbers of 71% of African American women are homeless, that’s three times the national average for African American women who are homeless.”
Hightower, DeHays and Dibella are all members of the Prevent Family Homelessness Collaborative, which hopes to reduce the number of homeless families by 50 percent over the next four and a half years.