Akron housing groups call for right-to-counsel, rental assistance fund in eviction prevention report

Debra Holman sits at a table at the Eviction Prevention Summit in Akron
Debra Holman (left) was fed up with the poor condition of her public housing unit at White Pond Villa and started asking for repairs to be made in March, 2020. Some of the work is still going on. She was at Community Legal Aid's day-long Eviction Prevention summit on Thursday. [Kabir Bhatia / WKSU]
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A new report to help curb Akron’s eviction crisis recommends the city provide free legal counsel for tenants in eviction proceedings and more education for landlords and tenants about their rights. Two Akron housing nonprofits — Community Legal Aid and Fair Housing Contact Service — will release the report Monday.

There is a power imbalance in eviction proceedings, said Steven McGarrity, executive director of Community Legal Aid, because tenants must often make the case for themselves, while landlords have experienced attorneys.

“They’re going to lose in cases, even though they might have a legitimate defense, because … it’s a process problem. They’re not able to present the evidence to the magistrate in the right way,” McGarrity said. “That’s why it’s important to give tenants a lawyer so that they can have equal footing when they go to court.”

Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan announced earlier this year that the city hoped to implement a right-to-counsel program by the end of 2022. A city spokesperson told Ideastream Public Media there were no updates to share at this time.

Another big issue identified at the summit was the lack of education for landlords and tenants about their legal rights, said Lauren Green-Hull, associate director of Fair Housing Contact Service. An education campaign could help this, she said.

“Folks don’t know what their rights and responsibilities are, and there are resources that exist. Folks just don’t know they exist,” she said.

One of the most urgent recommendations in the report, Green-Hull added, is for the city to instate a permanent rental assistance fund. COVID-19 rental assistance programs will end soon, at a time when rent prices are surging and many rental properties have been taken off the market in recent years, she said.

“It will be even worse, in my opinion, from pre-pandemic, because our housing stock has changed so drastically,” she said.

McGarrity added, he expects eviction rates to spike back up to pre-pandemic levels.

“Those are problems we’re all going to face in the very near future,” he said. “We all know what’s coming. We all talked about it at the eviction summit that these are things we’re going to face in the near future. If we’re not ready for it, then what excuse do we have?”

Among Ohio's large cities, Akron had the worst eviction rate in the state in 2016 and ranked 24th in the nation, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.

The report, which Ideastream viewed ahead of its release, is based on feedback gathered from tenants, landlords, community activists and elected officials during an Eviction Prevention Summit hosted by the two housing groups back in April.

After the event, the organizers wanted to develop a report of concrete action steps supported by housing advocates and city officials, but disagreements on some recommendations caused momentum to die down, McGarrity said.

“After the summit, we began doing follow ups with various organizations, and the courts, and the city, and unfortunately, it was clear that there wasn’t consensus on everything about how to move forward,” McGarrity said.

Spokespeople for the Akron mayor’s office and municipal court did not immediately respond to Ideastream Public Media’s request for comment.

Additionally, the housing groups further delayed the report out of respect for the family of Jayland Walker and the Akron community following the fatal police shooting of Walker, an unarmed Black man, in late June, McGarrity said.

Despite the delays, the groups wanted to recap the summit and issue recommendations about how to move forward, he said.

“We owe something to the community as to what happened at the summit, and as to where we’re going. So, instead of it being the action plan we were hoping to have communitywide agreement upon, it’s a report about what was discussed and the ideas that came up after the summit,” McGarrity said.

Some of the report’s other recommendations, such as a review of the city’s housing code, are already in progress. Some city councilmembers are looking over the code and may offer new or updated ordinances, McGarrity said.

He’s also encouraged by city council’s new Safe Housing and Steering Committee, in which council members are connecting with constituents about housing conditions and potential solutions, he said.

“City council certainly has buy in. They have made real efforts, I think, both before and after the summit to move forward with their plans,” he added.

Other solutions identified in the report include implementing a free mediation program for landlords and tenants; reviewing city and county landlord registries to identify gaps and better strategies; creating better pathways to homeownership and developing a special housing court in the Akron Municipal Court.

Green-Hull and McGarrity acknowledged that not all of the suggestions have a specific course of action, and many require political will and funding to get off the ground.

In the meantime, Legal Aid will ramp up its efforts to help more tenants in eviction courts, McGarrity said.

Fair Housing Contact Service is preparing to start a campaign to educate landlords and tenants on their rights in the fall, Green-Hull added.

“It’s hard to move forward when not all of the players are coming to the table and willing to make the sacrifices necessary to make changes,” she said.

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