Understanding the movement for renter protections in Cleveland

A red "For rent" sign outside a cream-colored house.
[Ksenia Ragozina / Shutterstock]

By Dan Polletta, The Land

In a city where 60% of households are renters, many Clevelanders face uncertain futures.

Tenants who are a day late with the rent can receive an eviction notice, and landlords can refuse to rent to tenants who choose to pay with a housing voucher.

A coalition of housing advocates and area organizations is asking Cleveland mayoral candidates Justin Bibb and Kevin Kelley to support renter protection legislation to address these issues. 

The group is seeking a commitment from the candidates, on the day they enter office, to endorse Source of Income (SOI) and Pay to Stay protection legislation, as well as to support a comprehensive Renters’ Bill of Rights. 

SOI protection would prohibit landlords from refusing to rent to tenants who choose to pay with an alternative source of income, such as a housing voucher or emergency rental assistance. Pay to Stay would allow tenants to remain in their homes, when facing eviction for not paying rent, if they have the money to pay the owed rent and late fees by the time of the eviction hearing. 

Emily Lundgard, Senior Director for State and Local Policy with Enterprise Community Partners, a national affordable housing and community nonprofit that has Ohio as a market, is one of the members of the coalition advocating for these protections. 

“It’s past due,” she said. “We’ve been working on this for a number of years. We’re really encouraged by this new moment we have, this new opportunity, thanks to incoming new leadership, to finally get these protections in place.”

The coalition currently has an online petition that has gathered nearly 400 signatures to present to the candidates, as well as a social media campaign encouraging citizens to push the candidates for renters’ rights.

Meanwhile, steam continues to build locally toward adoption of these renter protections, with Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish announcing a plan on Wednesday, Oct. 27 to prohibit landlords in the county from refusing to rent to people based on their source of income.

Over the next several months, The Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative (NEO SoJo) will take an in-depth look at renters’ rights from a variety of perspectives, including from advocates who are seeking to change the laws, other cities which have renter protection in place, renters who have encountered problems, as well as the issues landlords might face, if the legislation is passed.

Changing the laws

A coalition of nonprofits, including Enterprise Community Partners, the Fair Housing Center for Rights & Research, Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, NeighborUp, the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH), Eden Inc., and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress is calling the campaign for new legislation “Renters’ Protections on Day 1.”

(Note: The Cleveland Street Chronicle, which is supported by NEOCH, is a member of NEOSOJO. The Chronicle had no role in the writing or editing of this story and it will include this story in its latest edition.)

Currently in Cleveland, landlords can refuse to rent to potential tenants if they pay with an alternative source of income.

Sarah Jenkins, the director of public policy and community engagement for Toledo’s Fair Housing Center, said this leaves renters with limited and poor quality housing choices.

“The long-term effect is that those individuals with vouchers don’t have the ability to move out of these areas, which then perpetuates residential segregation, and racial concentrations of poverty,” Jenkins said.

Having SOI protection in place opens up the options for renters, allowing them to move into higher opportunity areas, which Jenkins said hopefully allows for more racial and economic integration. 

Source of Income discrimination is particularly prevalent in areas where there aren’t high concentrations of public housing. In these instances, 92% of renters who seek to use their vouchers are denied housing, according to a 2017 report from the Cleveland-based Fair Housing Center for Rights and Research.​​

The Fair Housing Center’s report indicated that 87% of the more than 7,300 households using a voucher in the city of Cleveland are Black. Voucher participants make up nearly 1 in 9 of all Black renter households in Cleveland.

The report also found that Black voucher holders are more likely to be denied the chance to rent using alternate methods of income than white counterparts.

“You’ll often hear us say the SOI discrimination is a proxy for race discrimination,” Lundgard said.

The coalition is asking the Cleveland candidates to support SOI protection legislation, making it illegal to refuse tenants the opportunity to rent, based on their method of payment.

The threat of eviction for falling behind in rent, even for a short period, is very real, with 70% of eviction cases coming for renters who were delinquent for three months or less, according to a 2019 report by Case Western Reserve University’s Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development, which studied eviction trends in Cleveland from 2013-2017.

The report noted that most tenants in eviction court are minority, low-income female heads of households with children. 

Studies have shown that evictions cause large and persistent increases in risk of homelessness, elevate long-term residential instability, and increase emergency room use, as well as limit opportunities for economic growth.

Ohio is one of only five states where it is currently legal for landlords to seek to evict a tenant who is a day late with rent. The Pay to Stay protection the coalition is seeking would allow the renters to avoid eviction if they present payment in full, plus late fees and court costs by the time of the eviction hearing. 

“This is why the Pay to Stay pillar of the ‘Renters Rights Day 1’ campaign is so important,” Lundgard said. “First and foremost, we want to prevent evictions. We want to keep people stably housed.” 

Where do the candidates stand?

Earlier this month, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative held a Mayoral Forum in which both candidates were asked: "Local housing advocates and policy experts are advocating for a specific set of renter protections that could be implemented on your 1st day in office and in the first 100 days. Are you supportive of SOI protections, Pay to Stay, and other needed renter protections addressing discrimination and housing access?”

Bibb responded that SOI and Pay to Stay protection was critical in the short-term, but did not directly address whether or not he supported legislation. 

Kelley said SOI protection was being worked on by city council, but that the body needed to work through addressing some nuanced legal issues, adding "it's not as simple as it sounds." Kelley made it clear that he opposed housing discrimination by those landlords who refused to accept Section 8 or veterans’ benefit payments.

The Land reached out to both candidates via email, offering them the opportunity to add any additional comments about their positions, but didn’t receive a response by the time of publication.

Michael Lepley, Senior Research associate for the Fair Housing Coalition, said members of the coalition are ready to partner with whichever candidate is elected, and will continue to advocate that the legislation is adopted.

“We’ll keep contacting people within the administration. We’ve been trying to make these issues public for quite awhile, so we’ll try to keep people thinking about them, and understanding why they are necessary,” Lepley said.

Lack of political will 

While Cleveland’s leaders mull over taking action, a number of cities across Ohio ranging from Akron, to Dayton, to Lakewood, to Yellow Springs have some version of SOI and Pay to Stay protection laws. 

Why doesn’t Cleveland?

Molly Martin, NEOCH’s Director of Strategic Initiatives, said while fair housing advocates in Cleveland have been discussing a need to change these laws for some time, there’s been a lack of a political will to pass them, which she hopes will change with new leadership at City Hall.

“As a housing organizer, having a new mayor for the first time in nearly two decades is a huge deal, because there is a lot that a mayor and a city council can do at the municipal level to help increase housing access, and to prevent evictions in the city,” Martin said.

Martin also said the relief provided to people who faced eviction during the coronavirus pandemic encouraged advocates to consider more long-term solutions to helping renters.

“When we saw that 50 million evictions were prevented during the pandemic because of the eviction moratorium, people on the ground began thinking about what other sources of protections we could provide, especially given the influx of American Rescue Plan dollars,” Martin said.

While having that additional money from the Rescue Plan helped tenants from getting evicted,  Martin said it demonstrated that vouchers were of little use, if they weren’t being accepted by the landlords. Providing SOI protection would be a major help to getting renters into spaces on the private market.

An opportunity to educate

While policy is the focus of this campaign, it’s not where the effort ends.

“We see this as an opportunity to work with and educate property owners and landlords,” Lundgard said. “Often, there are misperceptions about renters’ rights. Once we are able to work with them, and demystify voucher programs, we often hear landlords want to partner with us, because they want to provide safe and affordable housing.” 

Lundgard said it’s equally important to provide resources and incentive programs that make sure landlords who are engaging with voucher programs for the first time aren’t facing delays in getting renters into units and losing out on rent. 

Cleveland can learn lessons from other cities, including some in Ohio, that have implemented similar measures, Lundgard said. For example, in December 2020, Toledo City Council passed both SOI and Pay to Stay legislation but put in a delay for the ordinances to go into effect until April 2021, to provide landlords with a chance to get up to speed on the new policies.  

The coalition really does hope to see the proposals put forward in the “Renters’ Protection on Day 1” campaign receive attention on the new Mayor’s first day in office.

“Source of Income protection and Pay to Stay rights are policies ready to be introduced,” Lundgard said. “We’ve done an incredible amount of work. We’ve drafted legislation, which we’ve vetted with the community. We’ve done education with landlords, going through the programs and processes surrounding these policies. These processes are fully vetted and deeply researched, and most importantly, they are little to no cost, so we would really like to see action on day one.”

Lundgard said when renters are evicted, finding another place becomes even more difficult because they now have an eviction on their record. She said the advocates’ campaign won’t stop with SOI or Pay to Stay, either. Instead, they aim to protect renters’ rights more broadly. 

“The third pillar of the ‘Renters’ Protection on Day 1’ campaign is around this idea of creating a  Renters’ Bill of Rights,” Lundgard said. “That would include increased eviction record sealing and eviction expungement, so that if you did fall on hard times, and were evicted, that it’s not something that haunts you for the rest of your life, and keeps you from safe and affordable housing in the future.”

This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 18 Northeast Ohio news outlets including Ideastream Public Media. 

Dan Polletta is a veteran Northeast Ohio broadcaster and writer. He has written extensively about arts and culture, with a special interest in jazz.

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