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Akron is consistently ranked among the cheapest housing markets in the country, yet rents have risen 50% in the last two decades, while wages have remained stagnant. And the eviction rate is the highest among Ohio's largest cities. Home in Akron is a multimedia collaborative including WKSU focused on helping audiences better understand these housing issues and their underlying reasons.

Facing Eviction in Akron? Here's What You Can Do To Fight It

A photo of an eviction notice

While this article is focused on Akron, much of what's discussed here is broadly applicable across Ohio.

Akron Municipal Court magistrates granted hundreds of evictions throughout the pandemic. The Biden administration’s latest eviction order gives renters in areas where COVID-19 infections are at “substantial” or “high” levels another reprieve until October 3. As of this writing, Summit County is experiencing substantial community transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it’s unclear how this new extension will be implemented, and many more people could lose their homes in the coming months.

As part of our Home in Akron reporting collaboration on housing instability in Akron, we’ve spoken with housing experts, tenant advocates, attorneys and magistrates about the problems renters encounter during the eviction process. Here are some strategies that experts say can help.

Seek legal representation

Ohio law doesn’t require that tenants have a lawyer, nor does it make any provision for helping pay for one. But consulting an attorney is the most important thing a tenant can do to avoid eviction, said Andrew Neuhauser, a managing attorney at Community Legal Aid. National and local data is clear, he said: Tenants with a lawyer are much more likely to have a successful outcome or work something out with their landlord. Early analysis of a new right-to-counsel program in Cleveland found that 93% of tenants with legal representation in court were able to avoid eviction.

And it’s important to act early. Contact a private attorney or a local legal aid organization (list here) as soon as you receive notice of your eviction. Even if you don’t end up having a lawyer at your hearing, reaching out can help you get access to vital information and resources and facilitate communications with your landlord.

Contact your landlord

It’s important to communicate early and often throughout the eviction process, advocates say. Notify your landlord when you apply for rental assistance, and discuss any changes in your ability to pay rent as soon as you can. Are you borrowing money from your family or returning to work soon? Tell your landlord.

In the best-case scenario, you may be able to come to an agreement and avoid having to take the case to court.

Apply for rental assistance and submit a CDC declaration

If your landlord is evicting you for nonpayment of rent and you’ve been financially harmed by COVID-19, apply for rental assistance as quickly as possible. Emergency programs such as Summit County Cares can assist with rent or utility payments and, in some cases, evidence of your application alone can help your case in court.

Although it’s still unclear how the new CDC order will be applied in Summit County, also be sure to submit a signed declaration form to the court stating that you qualify for coverage.

Send in all your documentation ahead of time

This includes copies of your lease, canceled checks, written communication with your landlord, the CDC declaration and proof that you’ve applied for rental assistance. You can mail this information to the Clerk of Courts at 217 S. High Street, Room 837, Akron, Ohio 44308, or email it to smallclaims@akronohio.gov. Either way, be sure to include your full name, case number, hearing date, and the fact that yours is an eviction case.

Show up to your hearing

Regardless of whether you are able to secure legal representation, it’s important not to skip your court appearance. Tenants who don’t show up forfeit their ability to plead their case. Without the tenant present, key elements of the case — such as whether the landlord properly served the three-day eviction notice — are based on the landlord’s word. “You have nobody to dispute [whether] what the landlord is stating [is] factual,” Magistrate Angela Hardway said last fall.

In the more than 130 hearings we observed, whether or not a tenant was present made a significant difference in the outcome. When the renter was in attendance, magistrates granted roughly half of the evictions. Among tenants who didn’t show, 88% lost their home.

Make sure you have access to a reliable phone or computer and Wi-Fi

If you don’t have the necessary technology, call the small claims/evictions office at 330-375-2285 as soon as you receive your hearing notice to see if you can use a court-provided laptop at the courthouse. (You should call at least three days before your hearing; don’t be deterred if you have to leave a message). The notice will include instructions on how to access Zoom as well as the meeting ID and passcode. Test your internet connection ahead of time and practice logging on. If you lose connection during the proceedings, immediately call the court (also at 330-375-2285) and tell the bailiff what happened.

Know what to expect from the process

Magistrates may schedule 20 cases in a two-hour period, so you won’t have much time. The landlord’s side goes first, then the tenant. Be ready to give your testimony as clearly and concisely as possible, leading with the most important points. Did your landlord properly serve the three-day eviction notice? Are you aware that the property is not registered with the city and county? Have you applied for rental assistance? Do you have a lease?

Keep digital and physical copies of important documents close at hand

— even if you already submitted them to the court. When it’s your turn to speak, don’t hold back any information that you think could be relevant. What you say now might make all the difference in whether the judge grants or dismisses your case.

Updated: August 10, 2021 at 11:47 AM EDT