All this week NPR has been looking at what many call an affordable housing crisis in America. Many low income families use at least half of their paychecks on rent. Central Ohio has a booming rental market, and the rising rents have led to more evictions.
On a Wednesday morning the Franklin County eviction court is packed. The rows of wooden benches are filled. Under the glaring florescent lights, tenants sit to one side of the room and landlords on the other. Everyone waits for their case to be called. Toddlers squirm in their seats and a few people close their eyes to rest.
There are 100 cases on the docket for today, and that’s light compared to the average of about 130. Things here move at a calculated pace. Typically it takes less than a minute to process each of these cases.
The court clerk calls the next case to the bench. A lawyer appears to represent the landlord, but the tenant has failed to show. The case will proceed without them. The magistrate David S. Jump reviews a thin manila folder and asks the lawyer the following three questions.
Was the tenant behind in rent at that time?
Is the tenant still behind on rent?
And is the tenant still on the property as far as you know?
The lawyer answers yes to all three questions and the judge rules in his favor. The eviction is ordered.
Here, the majority of evictions are for a failure to pay rent. That can be frustrating for landlords like Darrell Spegal, who says he has to come to eviction court at least once a month.
“It’s sad sometimes because these are people that you know, and you know they’re trying,” said Spegal. “It’s one of those things we’re, ‘well we’re just being greedy landlords’, no. I got a staff to pay. I got all this other stuff to pay.”
In Franklin County about 19,000 eviction notices are filed each year. That’s by far the highest rate in the state. Last year about two-thirds of these cases resulted in a court ordered eviction; other tenants were able to strike deals with their landlords either to move out voluntarily or payoff their debt to stay.
That’s a lot of people falling behind on their rent. Reed Jordan, a researcher at the Urban Institute, a D.C. economic think tank, says what’s happening in Columbus is affecting plenty of U.S. cities.
“Nationally we have an affordable housing crisis and that means a lot of rental household can’t afford their rent,” said Jordan.
Over the past 15 years the cost of rent in Columbus has steadily risen and so has the rate of evictions. Add that to a rental market that’s grown substantially - according to the U.S. Census there are now more renters in Columbus than homeowners. Jordan says that for low-income families, this market is squeezing them out.
“If you’re paying too much on housing you’re going to sacrifice in a lot of areas,” said Jordan.
Things like food and healthcare will take a backseat to make rent and this affects a lot of families. According to research by the Urban Institute, Columbus has more than 59,000 “extremely low-income rental households,” i.e. households making less than $20,000 a year. Only a quarter of them will find an affordable rental unit. Most will wind up paying more than they can afford and that means they’re more likely to fall behind on rent.
At Community Mediation Services, Director Shelly Whalen has been helping Columbus landlords and tenants for over 20 years. She and her team give workshops at local homeless shelters on how to avoid eviction. She says many tenants don't understand that falling behind on rent can be a big mistake.
“90 percent of all tenants that we work with that are at imminent risk of eviction got there for failure to pay rent,” said Whalen.
According to research be Community Mediation, 61 percent of their participants at the homeless shelters have been evicted in the past, and Whalen says that can be a hurdle to ever getting back on their feet.
“Frankly once you have an eviction on your record it makes it really difficult for you to be able to access a better quality of housing in the future,” said Whalen.
In a competitive rental market like Columbus, landlords won’t choose to rent to tenants with a bad history. People who have been evicted are pushed into less desirable areas far away from the good jobs and schools. Whalen says, if she can teach people about tenant laws, and what to do if they fall behind on rent, they can avoid the setback of an eviction.
In a small daycare at the at the YWCA family shelter, Mara, a single mom, plays with her two young kids. A Disney movie blares in the background as she picks up her toddler wearing a polkadot onesie.
“Yeah this is my, she’s one she just turned one in February,” says Mara. “This is what I’m doing it for.”
Mara, who’s asked that we not use her full name, says she’s been evicted twice now.
“It feels like a heavy weight. It’s very stressful for me, I feel helpless," said Mara.
Both times Mara had a full time job, but still fell behind on rent. She says more than half her monthly income went to pay for her studio apartment near Gahanna. Every time she got paid, she said it felt like that check was ripped out if her hands. Eventually the cost of raising two kids caught up to her and Mara explained to her landlord that she needed more time. When she finally got the money together she says it was too late.
“He wouldn’t work with me, cause I was already behind, I was only behind a month,” said Mara, “I still got that letter, I went to court, I had to be out the next day," said Mara.
Mara says she lost her job because of the days she had to take off to go to court and move. She and her kids couch surfed and stayed with family until they eventually wound up at the YWCA shelter. She completed the eviction prevention workshop and says she learned how she can better protect herself in the future.
“If I would have knew what I knew now I wouldn’t be there I am now having to stay here,” said Mara.
Mara says she’ll work with her former landlord. If she can pay him what she owes he might nullify this last eviction, that way she and her family can keep moving forward.