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Eviction Moratoriums Didn’t Stop Judges In Akron From Ousting Hundreds From Their Homes

 Amber Moreland takes a break as her family moves out of her rental home in Akron, Ohio, in April. A local magistrate approved her eviction in March despite federal moratoriums. [Noor Hindi for Reveal]
Amber Moreland takes a break as her family moves out of her rental home in Akron, Ohio, in April. A local magistrate approved her eviction in March despite federal moratoriums.

Amber Moreland wasn’t supposed to be getting evicted from her Akron home.

For one thing, the federal government issued a pair of moratoriums on evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. For another, the Akron Municipal Court adopted a rule early last year saying it would no longer allow landlords whose properties weren’t registered with the city and the county to give renters the boot.

But there was Moreland one morning this spring, her face pressed close to her phone, logging onto a Zoom hearing in which the judge, Magistrate Kani Hightower, would decide whether she would stay or go. The property manager, Gary Thomas, who was also the landlord’s father, was in the Zoom hearing, too, along with the Thomases’ attorney.

Last year, Moreland, a nursing assistant juggling part-time jobs at various care facilities in the area, had been forced to make a difficult choice that threatened her family’s fragile stability just as the pandemic hit. To prevent the spread of COVID-19 between nursing homes, her employers said she could work at only one location, effectively slashing her hours. She chose the one where her mother was in hospice care, dying from a heart condition.

By August 2020, Moreland stopped paying her full rent of $800 a month. An eviction summons followed in February.

Moreland was exactly the kind of person the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was trying to help when it ordered a stop to evictions in the fall of 2020, a policy the Biden administration has extended until October of this year in much of the country. She was an essential worker reeling from the economic and emotional traumas of the pandemic.

Akron exemplified the kind of community that needed the moratoriums most; even before COVID-19 arrived, it had the worst eviction rate among Ohio’s large cities and one of the highest rates among big cities in the U.S., according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.

But for Moreland and hundreds of other Akron-area tenants during the pandemic, the federal moratoriums provided little protection.

Unlike the landlord, Moreland didn’t have a lawyer to defend her rights. In her Zoom hearing, her phone screen and audio weren’t working, which made it hard to explain her situation and understand what others were saying.

Hightower, the magistrate, didn’t ask how the pandemic had affected Moreland’s earnings, a key question that would have shown she was eligible for the CDC reprieve. Hightower also didn’t ask any questions about the elder Thomas, whose frequent battles with tenants and housing authorities the Akron Beacon Journal has extensively chronicled.

There’s another reason Moreland should have been protected: The house she was renting wasn't properly registered with the city and county. But the Akron court wasn't enforcing the rule against landlords the way it had said it would.

Still, Moreland stayed calm, believing the CDC moratorium would protect her. Then the magistrate issued her ruling: The Thomases had prevailed. In a few days, an eviction notice would be posted on Moreland’s front door. If she didn’t vacate the property on her own, Hightower said, her belongings could end up “on the curb.”

The hearing lasted 9 minutes, 53 seconds.

Throughout the pandemic, some variation of this story played out every week in the Akron Municipal Court and around the state. As COVID-19 swept through Ohio, sickening more than 1.1 million people, shuttering businesses and schools, and decimating livelihoods, the federal moratoriums and local rules designed to hold Akron-area landlords accountable failed to protect tenants from eviction and its life-altering consequences.

The Devil Strip and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting spent six months attending public eviction hearings at the Akron Municipal Court, which serves the cities of Akron and Fairlawn and several other towns in Summit County, to understand how landlords and the courts treated tenants during the pandemic. We observed a dizzyingly complex and opaque system that often led to a confounding result: Magistrate judges granted landlords the right to evict tenants, even when landlords didn’t follow the publicly stated rules and even when renters like Moreland were the exact people the federal government was trying to prevent from being kicked onto the streets.

In the Akron court, judges granted at least 665 evictions from April 2020 through this past March, not including cases filed before the pandemic, according to municipal court data.That’s an average of almost two tenants and families evicted a day in the midst of the biggest public health emergency in a century. In all, judges granted at least 42% of the nearly 1,600 evictions that landlords filed over that 12-month period.

The first moratorium, passed by Congress in March 2020 as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, applied to tenants and landlords who received federal aid, such as government-subsidized rent or mortgages; it lasted about four months. The second one, ordered by the CDC in September out of fear that forcing large numbers of Americans from their homes would be catastrophic for public health, was much broader, though still not as sweeping as it seemed.

There’s no question the federal measures had a big impact in the Akron area; Eviction filings fell steeply from 2019, when 2,147 petitions were filed, according to the court.But the pandemic-era numbers still dismayed James Hardy, who until recently was Akron’s deputy mayor for integrated development. He criticized the court for not doing more to help vulnerable tenants stay in their homes while giving landlords the benefit of the doubt.

“The Akron Municipal Court doesn't take the eviction problem seriously,” he said. “They're more concerned about not making anyone angry than they are about really being partners on addressing this issue.”

Hardy said city officials had assumed the CDC moratorium in particular was “ironclad.” “With everything going on,” he admitted, “we dropped the ball.”

The Devil Strip and Reveal emailed detailed questions to the Akron Municipal Court and reached out numerous times to discuss our findings. The court’s spokesperson, Nicole Hagy, did not respond.

The court had adopted a regulation, known as Rule 29, just before the pandemic that should have helped tenants such as Moreland.

Under the rule, landlords seeking to evict a tenant in Akron are required to provide proof that the property is registered with both the city and Summit County. If the property is outside the city, it must be registered with the county. If a rental isn’t registered, landlords must submit proof they’re exempt. “Noncompliance … shall result in the dismissal of the complaint,” the rule states.

The rental registries are meant to help housing officials keep tabs on landlords. But landlords often failed to register with little or no consequence. The court’s new policy was announced in a press release March 9, 2020, a few days before COVID-19 sent the country into lockdown.

Then magistrates decided not to follow the rule once the pandemic hit. But The Devil Strip and Reveal could find no public statement announcing the change of plan.

Our analysis found that during the pandemic, magistrates granted evictions in at least 148 cases in which landlords did not submit the proper registration documentation, according to hearing records.

One of those cases was Moreland’s. During the hearing, the magistrate confirmed that the run-down home she was renting was on the city registry. The court’s paperwork also said the landlord was registered with the county. But according to the Summit County Fiscal Office, that wasn’t true.

Amber Moreland’s son helps move a mattress out of their Akron rental house. [Noor Hindi]

Three Akron Municipal Court magistrates spoke last fall with The Devil Strip and Reveal in a joint interview and acknowledged that they hadn’t been following their own rule. Magistrate Angela Hardway said landlords had a hard time registering because government offices were closed, while city officials “were not prepared for how many people were going to suddenly start contacting them.”

Instead, magistrates said, they were using the rental registries as part of the “weight of evidence” to determine a case’s outcome. “There's a lot of weighing of credibility,” said Magistrate Thomas Bown, “you know, who's telling the truth and who do you not believe.” Failure to register is often a red flag pointing to other problems with a landlord, magistrates said.

Hardway also drew a distinction between the court’s rules and statutory law. For example, she said, the law clearly says tenants can’t be evicted if they haven’t received proper notice of the eviction. By contrast, Rule 29 isn’t the same type of legal mandate, she said. “There's a requirement for them to be registered. There's nothing in the law that says, because they're not registered, we have to dismiss their case.”

Tens of thousands of renters elsewhere in Ohio have also faced the threat of eviction during the pandemic, with more than 68,000 filings in 2020.

That’s down 36% from 2019, according to data from the Ohio Supreme Court. However, it’s unclear how many have actually been evicted, as neither the court nor the Eviction Lab track that data.

Housing advocates say the state’s historically landlord-friendly laws have always tipped the scales in favor of landlords.

In Ohio, for example, property owners are required to give only three days’ notice to evict a tenant for nonpayment of rent, whereas in neighboring Indiana and Pennsylvania, the minimum notice is 10 days. Some states mandate as much as 30 days.

There was also resistance among Ohio lawmakers, businesses and some courts against strengthening protections for renters affected by COVID-19 or clarifying the inevitable conflicts between the CDC order and state law. Ohio was among just seven states that didn’t pass some version of its own moratorium, according to a recent study. And real estate groups in the state aggressively fought the CDC edict, arguing that the public health agency had overstepped its authority. A Cleveland federal judge ruled in their favor in March, further undermining the moratorium’s impact.

Just getting reliable court data about the number of evictions in Ohio’s major metro areas is difficult to nearly impossible, our investigation found, hampered by inconsistencies in record keeping and official resistance to public scrutiny.

The upshot, said Emily Benfer, a housing law expert and visiting professor of law and public health at Wake Forest University, is Ohio “has made it very easy for tenants to be evicted throughout the pandemic and before the pandemic.”

Akron-area residents feel the housing instability acutely. In community dialogues sponsored by a local media collaborative in 2019 and 2021, residents said safe, affordable housing is essential to improving quality of life, but there was a growing perception that Akron was moving in the wrong direction. They told reporters of tension among homeowners, renters and unseen landlords and a belief that too many landlords didn’t care about building a stable community.

So the collaborative, comprising the Akron Beacon Journal and The Devil Strip newspapers, WKSU, News Channel 5, the Kent State University Collaborative News Lab, Reveal and the Your Voice Ohio statewide media partnership, is working with residents and advocacy groups to explore what’s wrong and what can be done.

As part of that effort, The Devil Strip and Reveal attended more than 130 online eviction hearingsduring the pandemic. We discovered that Akron tenants like Moreland didn’t just slip through the cracks in eviction court. They encountered a system that was fundamentally unequal.

Most landlords in the hearings had lawyers, but Ohio, along with almost every other state, doesn’t give tenants the right to counsel paid for by taxpayers. In the proceedings we observed, fewer than 5% of tenants had an attorney.

Tenants also suffered from a lack of access to technology. Unstable Wi-Fi connections sometimes pushed renters out of their own hearings. In one proceeding last fall, a tenant got through most of his testimony, but when the time came for follow-up questions, his Zoom crashed and he couldn’t figure out how to log on again. In her virtual courtroom, Magistrate Jennifer Towell tried to keep the proceedings moving, attempting to ask the man if he’d paid his rent until she realized she’d “lost him.” Seconds later, she asked her bailiff whether the tenant had called back into the courtroom before stating, “I do think I have enough testimony.” Then she granted the eviction.

That rushed pace was not an exception. By their own estimate, Akron magistrates heard as many as 15 to 20 cases per two-hour session,allotting an average of six to eight minutes per case. “It's not so much a court as it is like a massive cattle call,” said Graham Bowman, an attorney at the Ohio Poverty Law Center, which advocates for low-income residents at the state and federal level.

And like Moreland, many of those sent to eviction court were Black women. It’s a phenomenon researchers have noted around the country.

“Evictions are to Black women what mass incarceration is to Black men,” said Shawnita Sealy-Jefferson, a social epidemiologist at The Ohio State University who is studying the health effects of evictions on families. “Black men are locked up. Black women are locked out of their housing.”

In their joint interview, magistrates acknowledged the difficulties many tenants faced during the pandemic and pointed to steps they took to make the process less daunting. For example, having a bailiff on hand to act as tech support during hearings and allowing people, under special circumstances, to either call in for their hearing or come to the courthouse to use a court-supplied laptop. The online hearings actually made it easier for tenants to show up and defend their interests, Hardway said.

Andrew Neuhauser, a managing attorney at Community Legal Aid who handles cases throughout the region, said the Akron court showed flexibility toward renters in ways that some other local jurisdictions didn’t. “The judges and magistrates have been very willing to give tenants an opportunity to access rental assistance funds and to stay in their house using the CDC moratorium,” he said. “There are other jurisdictions nearby—it could just be on the other side of the street for some people—where they don't have those same protections, and the judges and magistrates are less willing to work with them.”

But the municipal court also sometimes changed plans without informing the public, and not just about Rule 29.

In November of 2020, for example, a COVID-19 exposure in the Harold K. Stubbs Justice Center prompted the municipal court to declare via press release that all eviction hearings would be postponed until after Jan. 1, 2021. The new rule would have halted dozens of scheduled hearings.

But a few days after the announcement, the court quietly resumed virtual eviction hearings, without issuing a new press release or other public notice. Magistrates allowed cases to proceed, but only if both the tenant and the landlord appeared, again, without explaining the revised temporary policy. As a result, some tenants who showed up to their hearings were inadvertently punished, while renters who stayed away got a reprieve.

Akron magistrates did not respond to follow-up questions about why evictions resumed but the public wasn’t informed.

Moreland has been to eviction court at least four times in recent years. A native of Canton now in her late 30s, she’s endured many other struggles as well, including bouts of homelessness and battles to regain custody of her kids. But she never gave up. “At times, it felt like I did, because (I was running) into a brick wall,” she said. “Sometimes, it felt like it (wasn’t) moving. But I was really moving that wall the whole time.”

Moreland thought she’d finally cleared the wall in the winter of 2019. Her nursing assistant jobs provided her with steady income. The custody fights had quieted down. The three-bedroom house in a quiet neighborhood not far from Akron’s downtown was another fresh start. She fell in love with the big backyard, imagining family barbecues and long summer nights around the firepit. As she surveyed the expanse of grass from her porch, the “clear, open view” gave her hope.

But it didn’t take long for Moreland to realize that her new home was not the haven she’d been longing for. There was the broken screen door that wouldn’t open, the sunk-in bathroom floor, the tub that wouldn’t drain. Worst of all were the leaks that forced her to set up buckets around her bedroom.

“If it rained, it rained inside my room,” Moreland recalled a few days after her March eviction hearing. “Not even drips. It was, like, literally water coming in my room.” Other parts of the house weren’t much better. “The bathroom walls would sweat, like they were crying.”

According to court documents, the property owner was Lee Thomas. But the person who took Moreland’s rent and responded to her requests for help was Lee’s father and property manager, Gary. Over the years, the elder Thomas has had many run-ins with local housing agencies over the poor condition of his rental properties, and he listed nearly $800,000 in unpaid property taxes when he filed multiple bankruptcy cases in 2018. Housing code enforcers and county tax collectors have filed numerous actions against him and his properties, and he was the target of Ohio’s first-ever joint effortby a county auditor, land bank and prosecutor to collect a public debt.

Almost all of Thomas’ tenants in Akron were low-income, the Beacon Journal reported, and they often complained about the conditions in which they were forced to live.Moreland said she contacted Gary Thomas about the leaks numerous times, but after waiting in vain, she called city officials. After that, Moreland said, Thomas patched the roof, though she still had a hole in her bedroom ceiling from the water damage.

By February 2020, Moreland began running up against the brick wall again. First, her mother’s deteriorating health pushed her into a long-term care facility. Moreland’s father was ailing as well. Then the coronavirus arrived, upending Moreland’s job along with so much of her life. The financial and emotional stresses of caring for her parents, her kids and her patients—COVID-19 was spreading through the nursing home where she worked—often felt overwhelming.

As money became tighter and tighter, the choices grew harder and harder: Pay her rent, fall behind on gas and electricity and risk losing her kids again, or keep the lights on and make partial payments to Thomas whenever she could.

“As much as I could, I made sure if I got any piece of change, I gave it to Mr. Gary,” she said. “I'm going to feed my kids, I'm going to make sure lights, gas and electric is on in here before I give you something. But Mr. Gary didn't see it like that. It was more or less like, ‘Well, you paid gas and electric and bought food. You couldn't give me rent?’ ‘No, because I don't have any rent to give you. If I'm telling you the only thing I got is $300 to give you, take the $300. At least I'm giving you something and not nothing.’ ”

The Devil Strip and Reveal contacted Gary Thomas three times by phone. He declined to be interviewed, saying he’d had enough trouble with the city. “I think I’ll pass,” he said when pressed for comment.

After six months of not paying her full rent, Moreland received the notice she’d been dreading: Her landlord had filed a court petition to have her removed from the house.

When the CDC halted evictions last year, the federal government didn’t issue a lot of guidelines about how the moratorium should be enforced. Many of the details were left to states to work out.

“Local courts and even different judges within those courts were coming to wildly different conclusions about what things mean,” said Bowman of the Ohio Poverty Law Center.

The Akron court required tenants who hoped to benefit from the moratorium to do one of two things before their hearing: Either sign a declaration stating that they’d lost income because of the pandemic or apply for rental assistance under the CARES Act. But tenants who didn’t have lawyers or computers frequently didn’t know the rules or understand which approach might be best for someone in their circumstances.

In Moreland’s case, a signed declaration could have been enough to stop the eviction. But she didn’t submit one to the court. Instead, she focused on trying to get CARES Act money. And that’s when she encountered an especially frustrating Catch-22.

The problem was that in order to benefit from CARES Act assistance for tenants, properties had to be listed as a rental unit on the county rental registry. Because Moreland’s house wasn’t registered with Summit County, she wasn’t eligible.

Still, through it all, Moreland said she kept being reassured that she couldn’t be evicted.

When she called a lawyer for advice, he told her not to worry, she said: Not only was she clearly covered by the CDC moratorium, but because the property wasn’t properly registered, she was also protected under the court’s Rule 29. When she called 211, a hotline that provides information and referrals for things like rental assistance, the reasoning was similar, she said: They couldn’t find the property’s rental registration and thus couldn’t help her, but because she couldn’t be evicted, there was no reason to panic. [14]

Moreland panicked anyway, calling a homeless shelter to try to line up a place to stay in case everyone was wrong. When she showed up to her hearing, she was without an attorney, CARES Act rental assistance or a signed declaration.

It turned out Moreland’s instinct to prepare for the worst had been correct. Yet even the social services providers and advocates who were helping her navigate the system couldn’t believe it.

She called back one of those providers, and the woman who answered the phone was astonished. She went to get her supervisors.

“I heard the supervisor, like – ‘Amber, you mean to tell me right now, you just got out of court and they told you that you were evicted?’”

Moreland responded, “Yes.”

They were both stunned.

Since Moreland’s hearing in late March, Akron eviction proceedings have continued over Zoom, with at least 100 additional tenants and families ordered from their homes. As the end of the CDC moratorium loomed in July, housing advocates were expecting the numbers to soar. Their fears eased somewhat after the Biden administration reinstated the ban in parts of the U.S. experiencing “substantial or high levels of community transmission of COVID-19,”but the details of the new policy are fuzzy and legal challenges are expected. As of this writing, Summit County is experiencing substantial community transmission, according to the CDC, but it’s still unclear how the new order will be implemented.

Meanwhile, the Akron City Council has passed two bills that could give renters facing eviction a reprieve. The first prohibits housing discrimination based on a tenant’s source of income. The other, known as “pay to stay,” will require landlords to accept any back rent they’re owed if the tenant provides the money before the eviction is finalized with the court.

The good news for Moreland is that she wasn’t completely unprepared. While trying to figure out how to stop her eviction, she had already done the legwork required to find a new place to live. And the new house is properly registered, so the landlord is eligible to receive rental assistance from the government, should Moreland ever again need to access those emergency funds. She and her family were ready to move on.

It was the evening before the deadline she’d been dreading, April 19. Between working, taking classes at Stark State College and caring for her kids, she’d struggled to find time to pack. A nationwide outageon the U-Haul website presented another unexpected crisis. But Moreland got through it.

“It’s just staying focused and taking everything one day at a time,” she said, watching her youngest son wrestle a mattress three times his size into a truck. “What happened yesterday happened yesterday. I don’t wake up the next morning with what happened yesterday. I just wake up, and today is Monday. We are going to keep Monday as Monday.”

Reveal fellow Grace Oldham and data reporter Mohamed Al Elew contributed to this story. It was edited by Nina Martin, Soo Oh and Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Noor Hindi can be reached at noor@thedevilstrip.com Follow her on Twitter: @MyNrhindi.