Akron is facing disproportionately high eviction rates compared to the rest of Ohio, and residents are seeking ways to educate and protect themselves. The Sound of Ideas Community Tour visited the Akron-Summit County Public Library to discuss the issue, identified in a Princeton University study.
According to the study, the city ranks first in Ohio for eviction rates and falls in the top 25 nationally. That has ramifications for the county’s health ratings, said Akron Health Equity Ambassador Tamiyka Rose.
“Not having a house, you don’t have readily available healthy food to eat, which then increases your diabetes and obesity, and then the mental health aspect of that as well,” Rose told the audience.
The city noticed trends linking some health concerns with eviction, Rose said, and has been meeting with local officials to discuss potential causes and solutions.
“There’s a direct correlation between evictions and premature birth and infant mortality, and we wanted to see what was going on around that,” Rose said.
A recently-formed eviction task force aims to address the issue by evaluating the community’s housing needs. The group is examining three areas: financial need, education and awareness, and policy, according to Fair Housing Contact Service Associate Director Lauren Green-Hull.
“We want to make sure that the way housing is provided in our community is meeting the needs of the community, not just those who own property in the community,” Green-Hull said.
One major issue, Green-Hull said, is educating residents on their options both ahead of and following an eviction notice.
“Folks do not understand how to put their rent in escrow, that that’s their right and responsibility to be able to do that, so that’s a huge one there,” Green-Hull said. “And educating folks about the process, what does the process of eviction look like?”
Education was the main topic during The Sound of Ideas, with many in attendance voicing concern over a lack of awareness on tenants’ rights. The City of Akron is planning a tenant forum in March, as well as a town hall for landlords later this summer.
Local organizations are also offering resources for renters, said Camille Dickerson with the Akron Canton Real Estate Investors Association. Providing opportunities for education, such as the renter workshops her organization arranges, gives Akron residents resources to understand their rights and the eviction process.
“If we’re not educating our residents, what they need to do so that they can be successful renters, then we’re not going to have successful renters,” Dickerson told the audience.
Knowing the options doesn’t solve every problem for renters, panelists said. Many difficulties arise from not having the resources to push back against an eviction notice.
Just having an attorney present during the hearing reduces the likelihood of an eviction, said John Petit, managing attorney for Community Legal Aid.
“Roughly 70 percent of the cases we assist with result in an eviction being dismissed,” Petit said. “And when you look at the overwhelming majority of people who go in without an attorney, those hearings are very short, and a vast majority of those lose or get evicted.”
Tenants without an attorney won’t know the best way to argue their cases, Petit said.
“They have no idea how to ask for a continuance, no idea how to say, you know, ‘The landlord took the money on the fifth of the month last month, and this month he refused,’” Petit said.
Doing research independently can yield results, said resident Liksha Hoskins. Hoskins brought documentation of her efforts to prevent her family from being evicted.
“How hard is it for everybody to get on their cellphones and look up the laws? It’s not difficult,” Hoskins said. “Read them, it’s not difficult. Y’all have to start educating yourselves.”
Landlords can also do more to prevent evictions, said Joshua Moraghan, district manager with the Community Builders, a nonprofit real estate developer. That includes being more consistent on the deadlines for rental payments and similar lease enforcement issues.
“The consistency so that our residents know that we’re there to protect them, but that we’re also consistent and we’re not arbitrarily deciding which rules we’re going to follow,” Moraghan said.
The policies in Akron do make it easier for landlords to evict because of a lack of tenant protections, Moraghan said.
“When you have to make that sometimes hard decision, you know that that process is going to move far too quickly for those people to reestablish themselves somewhere else,” Moraghan said.
But changes to those laws won’t come from the courts, said Akron Municipal Court Judge Jon Oldham.
“The public expects the court to be fair and neutral and interpret the law,” Judge Oldham said. “The legislative branch is where laws can be more easily changed.”
But those changes are needed beyond the local and state level, said Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority Executive Director Brian Gage. Federal law allows for greater benefits for people with mortgage income deductions than renters, he said.
“Where the federal priorities are, are with homeowners and landowners, and not renters, not low-income tenants,” Gage said. “I think we really need to emphasize that point.”
The conversation around renter protections and evictions is ongoing in Akron. But it needs to include everyone, said resident Debra Calhoun, especially those in need of more protection.
“We know that affordable housing is an issue across the country, not just Akron,” Calhoun said. “But I feel that the bottom is where our work should be, and including those tenants so that they know how to stay in their apartments.”