Jerry Smith wanders through a home on the west side of Columbus with his hands clasped behind his back. His hat says "bailiff" in big block letters, and he’s guiding researcher Stephanie Pierce from room to room. They pass an overturned couch and old clothes strewn on the floor.
“Wow, so there’s a lot of stuff here,” Pierce says, looking around the dining room. “It definitely looks like it’s been a pretty hasty departure.”
“Probably about 50 percent are left in this condition, about 50 percent,” Smith tells her. “You rarely ever get one that’s cleaned out and pristine or anything. Occasionally—but rarely.”
If the eviction process cannot be resolved, this is where it winds up: a set out. Under the supervision of a bailiff, the landlord clears out a tenant’s remaining belongings and retakes possession of the home.
No one wants to end up here. Evictions are expensive for landlords, and they miss out on rent in the meantime. Tenants have to move on short notice, and a past eviction can make it hard to find a new place to stay.
“Rental prices are going up, wages aren’t, and we’re not constructing enough low-income affordable housing to meet demand,” Pierce explains.
Local officials are grasping for a response, but it seems the longer you look at the problem, the bigger it gets.
According to The Ohio Housing Finance Agency, more than a quarter of Franklin County’s renters already devote half or more of their paycheck to housing.
High rents aren't confined to Central Ohio, of course. But consider New York City: Its population is bigger than Columbus by a factor of 10. But in 2015, Columbus saw more than 18,000 evictions, only about 4,000 fewer than those filed in New York.
While other Ohio counties have more evictions or a higher rate, every single one of Franklin County’s evictions—all 18,000 of them—move through one courtroom, making it the busiest in the state.
“Some days there’s 50 or so evictions, some days there’s 250. And that means that some people are waiting around all day long,” says Melissa Benson from the Legal Aid Society of Columbus.
Just outside the corridor, a long corridor stretches with brown carpet and metal-framed, kelly green couches that seem plucked from a different decade. A couple dozen tense, tired faces stare around blankly waiting for their turn before the judge.
Benson and her colleagues are on hand to help tenants who otherwise can’t afford legal representation. Most are behind on rent, but the cases aren’t always cut and dry.
Tyra Burks wound up here after a dispute with her landlord about repairs.
“I mean, I have the money,” she explains. “I just—didn’t know the proper procedures to go about to handle things the correct way.”
As Burks and her husband wrangle three little girls, she explains the problem started with a leaky roof. Her landlord eventually patched it, but in the meantime, mold and mildew developed.
Until the landlord addressed the issue, they decided to withhold rent—which they can do. But they have to place the money in escrow with the court. Burks didn’t know about that, so now she’s skipping work to attend an eviction hearing, and she has no idea how long she’ll wait.
“The paper doesn’t really give much so far as room goes as time,” she says. “Which is unfortunate because especially when you do have to work, it would be nice if you could have a better timeframe.”
Her landlord isn’t here. In their place stands a lawyer with an affidavit.
Many courts—even in Ohio—don’t allow landlords to skip eviction hearings. But Franklin County does.
Other property owners, like Bob Perryman, make the trip to the courthouse.
“I am here because it gives me the opportunity to work with the tenant, to find a way to mediate, to hear the story, to make some agreements," Perryman says. “More than 50 percent of the time, we’re able to work it out while we’re here."
Perryman says one tool that helps is a county PRC grant—for prevention, retention and contingency. Residents can get up $1,500 a year for emergency expenses, and there’s a table outside the courtroom with staffers to help people fill out applications.
Evictions in Franklin are actually declining—albeit slowly, and city leaders are trying to respond more aggressively. Mayor Ginther set aside $5 million for affordable housing in his new capital improvement proposal, and Columbus City Council member Jaiza Page won approval for a series of workshops to help educate people facing eviction.
“We’re going to explain the eviction process, rent escrow, what type of services are available when you may need emergency funding whether it’s for your rent or utilities,” Page says.
Page says representatives from different agencies will be on hand to connect tenants with any support available. There are six workshops in all and attendees have to register to participate.
After huddling with legal aid and her landlord’s attorney, Burks paid her back rent. She says she’ll put next month’s in escrow if her landlord doesn’t get rid of the mold and mildew.
Burks loves where she lives and says moving with a large family would be hard, but after going to court, she might start looking.
Correction: an earlier version of this story inaccurately stated median rent in Franklin County was rising faster than any other county in the state. The error came from misidentifying the county on an Ohio Housing Finance Agency map—the county with the sharpest increase in median rent is actually Delaware County.