'I Don't Have Any Hope': Hamilton County Evictions Continue Amid COVID-19 Crisis
Landlords have filed evictions in over 5,000 cases in Hamilton County this year. But since September, tenants have been able to stave off being kicked out of their homes by filing for the CDC Eviction Moratorium. A couple hundred have applied, but less than half have been granted. The protection the order provides wraps up at the end of the month, leaving people with few options.
Monique Simmons, 40, is one of them. She's lived with her 4-year-old-son Armani at the Bethany Homes Apartments for almost four years. While she was talking, he playfully shot his Nerf gun at her.
"Mr. Armani!" she said, giggling. "He makes my day. He does. If it wasn't for Armani... I don't know what. I just feel like giving up. I don't have any hope," she said.
Simmons asked we use her middle and last name for this story.
When the pandemic started, she was a home health care provider. But her dad had a stroke and temporarily came to live with her, so she had to quit that job. While she took care of him, he helped pay bills and she was able to get rental assistance from local organizations. When her dad could be on his own, she got a job bartending. But COVID-19 restrictions have caused the bar to close and now she's falling behind on rent. She owes about $1,150 and said she's received a notice saying she owes $16 per day in late fees.
"I'm at my breaking point right now," she said. "I pray a lot. I just want everything to get better. This is not right. This whole COVID thing is just messing up everybody. And everybody has to worry about where they're going to get their meals from, where they're going to live, if the landlord's gonna put you out."
Magistrate Deborah Casey approved Simmons' request to be protected from eviction by the moratorium through the end of the month. And she hopes to be able to pay more of her rent when she starts working again in mid-December. She doesn't know what she'll do if she can't.
"Sometimes I feel like giving up and just say 'Forget it. I'll go back and stay with my mom,'" she said. "I'm 40 years old. I don't want to stay with my mom. I don't want to stay with anybody. I don't want to go back to a shelter. I don't want to be homeless again."
She experienced homelessness in 2016. She'd originally been staying with her mom, who was also helping Simmons' sister. After living in a two-bedroom apartment with seven people for a while, she and Armani, who was six-months-old at the time, opted to stay at the Salvation Army emergency shelter instead.
Simmons has applied to live in a townhome. If approved, she says a case worker at the Salvation Army told her the organization will likely be able to help her with money for a down payment. She says the case worker told her the organization doesn't want her to end up back at their shelter.
That's just not a safe option now.
'We're going to have a huge crisis on our hands'
Nick DiNardo is a managing attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio. It offers free legal services to those in need in Cincinnati and the surrounding area.
"If the CDC order is not extended — the shelters are already full — so we're going to have a huge crisis on our hands," he said. "And we're going to have the type of situation you don't want in the middle of an infectious disease pandemic, which is people doubled up with family or in shelters or on the street in the worst weather."
In September, DiNardo said judges told landlords and tenants about the moratorium and gave them some details about how to apply. But the consistency of that has dwindled in the past few months.
He says even those who do apply are facing a strict interpretation of the moratorium and have to jump through additional hoops to stay in their homes.
"They're also asking people, 'So what did you spend your money on? How much did you spend on food or cigarettes or your car?' " Dinardo said.
That is not normal in pre-pandemic eviction court because people's finances are usually not relevant to the case. The moratorium doesn't require those kinds of questions to be asked. But it does allow for them if it's an attempt to confirm the validity of the application.
The Hamilton County Eviction courts are also requiring people to prove their loss of income is directly related to COVID-19, another point the moratorium does not explicitly require.
"I don't know, it doesn't make sense," DiNardo said. "I mean, the order is very broad. The whole purpose of the order is not just to protect tenants but to protect the entire community."
Chief Magistrate for the Hamilton County Municipal Court Melissa West says the rollout of the moratorium has been confusing for judges, lawyers, tenants and landlords. But she says people are trying to do the best they can.
"There’s so much variance," she said. "I can’t really answer whether we're stricter or less strict because there's so much variety between jurisdictions because this was rolled out with so little procedure built around it."
The way it's applied, she said, varies throughout Ohio and the rest of the country.
Hardships On All Sides
But the consistent link between it all is the hardships she sees presented in the courts by both tenants and landlords.
Tenants have explained how they've lost jobs and family members because of COVID-19. And landlords, she said, have explained how they've been unable to pay their mortgages without rent they were relying on from tenants.
It's her job, she said, to ensure people don't take advantage of the moratorium, to make sure the law is upheld and to remain impartial.
"We cannot be perceived as benign attorneys for either side," West said.
Gaps in the moratorium protections have prompted some to say not only should it be extended, but it should cover more people.
Amanda Robinson is also an attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio. She represented Monique Simmons in her court case.
Robinson says tenants don't always know how to follow all the rules to apply for eviction relief and so they're denied. She'd like to see a moratorium with few, if any, tenant obligations.
"And just halt all evictions filed due to nonpayment of rent outright while we figure things out and allow people time to apply to the various resources that are out here," she said.
Aftab Pureval is Hamilton County's Clerk of Courts. He said over 5,130 evictions have been filed in the county this year. Since September, 221 CDC declarations have been filed and 77 have been accepted.
The clerk's office, he said, has started an Eviction Help Center to connect tenants and landlords with rental assistance programs in the area.
"The good news here is that funds are still available," he said. "There's so much need that it's taking a little bit of processing time to get those funds out into the community, but funds are available."
More information about the center can be found at cincyhelpcenter.org.
There's still time for people to apply for moratorium relief through the end of the month. For more information of how to get rental assistance, visit the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati website.
There's no news yet on whether the CDC eviction moratorium will be extended. But either way, eviction court in Hamilton County is backlogged through January.