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Business & Economy

Franklin County eviction filings surpassing pre-pandemic levels

Outside the eviction courtroom at the Franklin County Municipal Court
Outside the eviction courtroom at the Franklin County Municipal Court

Near the start of the pandemic, governments put various protections in place to keep people in their homes if they fell behind on rent.

It's been over a year since the last COVID-related eviction moratorium expired, and central Ohio eviction filings have been creeping up ever since.

Sarah Huelskoetter is a Franklin County Municipal Court-appointed social worker and part of a pilot program implemented at the start of the pandemic to help people facing eviction.

“We realized very quickly that the most important thing was when people show up, do they even know what to do? Do they know how this process works? Can they get linked with legal aid or with mediation or with financial assistance,” Huelskoetter said.

Traci Bennett, a single mother of two facing eviction, fought back tears as she recalled the poor conditions in her Columbus apartment.

“I have mold in my home. And my kids, I've been sick for two months straight," Bennett said. "I'm also dealing with roaches. I have roaches in my refrigerator. They're everywhere, and I'm spending my money the best I can to get rid of them.”

Bennett says she applied for financial assistance, but her landlord, Abbeyhill Realty, refused to work with the agency. “I'm gonna try to keep the biggest smile on my face I can at this time, because I have to go home and tell my seven year old we have to go to a shelter," she said.

An attorney representing Abbeyhill says the property has taken steps to address the pest issue. They also confirm they don't work with the agency Bennett sought out because of previous issues.

Fawn Hadnot, a renter at a different property, said she simply fell on hard times. “I'm on a fixed income," she said. "My son was helping me pay half the rent, but then he got mad at me and moved out all of a sudden. So it made me fall back on my rent.”

But Hadnot says she's not mad at her landlord, Robert Pitts, who accompanied her to eviction court. Together, they were there trying to get assistance so that she can pay what she owes. “I hated to do this here two weeks before Christmas, but, you know, businesses is business, like the attorneys always say,” Pitts said.

The numbers suggest it's a growing problem. Franklin County Municipal Court data show nearly 20,000 eviction filings so far this year.

“This is a record year," said Melissa Benson, managing attorney of the housing practice group at the Legal Aid Society of Columbus.

"It's been, I think, at least a decade since this many evictions have been filed in this court," Benson said.

Data compiled by the Eviction Lab, a non-profit research group at Princeton University, show there have been more than 42,000 eviction filings in Columbus since March 15 of 2020.

Filings fell sharply under the local moratorium at the start of the pandemic, and with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order that followed. Now the trend has reversed.

“Since basically November of last year in Columbus, we have seen the rate of eviction filings returned to what it was before the pandemic, plus more," Eviction Lab research specialist Adam Chapnik said.

Eviction filings are not spread evenly across the city. About 100 properties in Columbus are responsible for nearly 30% of filings, Chapnik said.

Last week, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown called for legislative action to hold bad actors in the rental property industry accountable.

"Private equity firms, big investors in Ohio and across the country saw a housing shortage, they saw a captive market of families who needed affordable places to live," Sen. Brown said.

"So they bought up properties, they've raised rents, they've cut maintenance, they've priced out family homebuyers, they forced renters out of their homes," he said.

It's important to note that most eviction filings are resolved before a judgement is issued. But just having an eviction filing on a person's record can have consequences. Chapnik calls it the "Scarlet E."

“Even though they weren't evicted, even though they paid back their rent in full. They'll say, 'This is a risky tenant and I'm not going to accept their application,'" Chapnik said.

Social worker Sarah Huelskoetter said people going through evictions are impossible to stereotype because it can happen to anyone.

“I see people who came in here after being hospitalized. I see people who have Master's degrees. I see people who really have just not paid for a long time. The whole gamut," she said.

Housing attorney Melissa Benson said part of the problem is that housing subsidies have not kept pace with inflation. And an incredibly tight housing market means it's harder for people to move.

Benson said the pressures facing renters are likely going to increase moving forward.

"As rental assistance funds start to dry up within the next year, which we are anticipating, this could become a much more significant problem once that resource isn’t there," Benson said.

More data on Columbus evictions as compiled by the Eviction Lab can be found here.

Matthew Rand is the Morning Edition host for 89.7 NPR News. Rand served as an interim producer during the pandemic for WOSU’s All Sides daily talk show.