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Coronavirus In Ohio: First Of The Month Brings Uncertainty For Renters And Landlords

Paige Pfleger

It’s the first of the month, which means it’s time to pay rent. But with unemployment claims at all-time high because of the coronavirus, many tenants in Ohio are worrying about their ability to keep up with payments. 

"I would certainly love to know if it’s crucial to collect April’s rent," says Carrie Harshbarger. "Could it have been frozen til' May? When things settle down? Because having an emergency fund now is even more crucial, particularly if there’s going to be potential medical costs."

Harshbarger lives in Columbus with her partner, who was recently laid off from the service industry. She is about to start a new job, but her old job was cut short because of the coronavirus, which means less money for this month's rent.

Despite working multiple jobs to make ends meet, she says they mostly live paycheck to paycheck and don’t have much savings.

"I think it’s the same boat as a lot of people, particularly with the student loans," she says. "And rent in Columbus has gone up quite a bit since I moved here seven years ago. And I think a lot of people were struggling before this, and now it’s really scary and uncertain times."

During his coronavirus briefings last week, Gov. Mike DeWine urged people to not judge those who can't make rent.

"The fact that someone cannot pay now does not reflect upon, should not reflect upon their credit, their character or anything else," he said. "It should reflect on the situation that we are all in."

Despite that, DeWine has not instituted a statewide moratorium on evictions - although the Ohio Supreme Court has urged judges to postpone proceedings when possible.

"It’s important that the courts have the flexibility and that they not be told exactly what to do, because you may have someone who is a domestic violence case order, or someone is ordered to move out," DeWine said. "You would not want that stayed. The same would be true of someone whose committed illegal activity."

Franklin County has placed a moratorium on evictions until May 11. Landlords can still fill out the paperwork to get the process started, but they won’t be able to remove tenants from properties for not paying rent.

"It’s up in the air if the moratorium will be extended, whether any rent forgiveness is going to be coming," says Rachel Wenning of the Columbus tenant’s union. "But that’s a real problem: You have moratorium but rent is still racking up. So in the end when the moratorium is lifted, if we owe three or four months of rent, how are we going to come up with that amount when people are already rent burdened?"

Plus, Wenning adds many landlords will still charge late fees, which compound over time.

"This is going to be a wake-up call for many landlords," she says. "That their income is fully dependent on the labor of those who live in their units, and when there is a massive downturn like this, their income can dry up as well."

Renter Gabe Solomon lost his job as an audio technician for concert venues because of the coronavirus, and the state's ban of mass gatherings. He says that, just like he didn’t choose to lose his income, his landlord shouldn’t have the choice to keep theirs.

"Rental property is an investment," Solomon says. "If I buy stock in a company and that stock goes down, I can’t call up the company that I bought stock in and threaten them with homelessness unless I get my money back." 

However, property manager Andrew Levering says landlords still have bills to pay themselves. 

"Bills are still coming in," he says. "Water bills still need to be paid, taxes, insurance still need to be paid, and there’s no relief on the landlords."

Levering works another job on top of his rental properties, so he says he’s not hit as hard by the current situation. But many landlords aren’t as lucky.

"If I were to rely solely on the rental business income right now,  I would be very very concerned," he says. 

Levering says he would not charge his tenants late fees at the moment, and that he would try and work something out if someone came to him with a problem making rent.

But he acknowledges that a lot of larger management companies might not be willing to do the same.

"I think we’ve all got to be lenient here," he says. "And the landlords have been singled out to be lenient right off the bat. And that’s a responsibility that has been given to us and we have to take it. But eventually that’s going to trickle down to the cities, the local governments and the banks." 

Last week, Lt. Gov. John Husted urged banks to be forgiving of landlords because of the difficult position they are in. 

"If you own an apartment complex that, say, had 32 apartments and eight people couldn’t pay, well the person who owns that apartment complex will not be able to pay their mortgage and could be foreclosed upon," Husted said. 

Both landlords and tenants are holding out hope for government help, but, as with so much in this pandemic, the answers are uncertain and likely far down the road.