Door-to-door: Advocates canvass neighborhoods, informing tenants and trying to prevent evictions

Anna Powaski and Chad Falatic walk down the cracked sidewalk of a street in the Kinsman neighborhood, toward a small rental home with a sagging porch and a U-Haul moving truck in the driveway. They strike up a conversation with two men on the porch.

 

Falatic and Powaski—both wearing masks—explain they’re with the Cleveland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and the reason why they’re there: The landlord has filed an eviction order.

 

“Are you going to be attending your hearing? You could potentially be hooked up with legal representation for free; either way, you should still probably attend the court date,” Falatic tells the men.

 

“It’s virtual, right? So, I’ll probably do it virtual,” one of the tenants says.

 

As they talk, Falatic and Powaski learn that the tenants are planning to move out anyway. The men said they didn’t want to deal with their unresponsive landlord anymore—the previous owner sold the home to a new buyer. Neither owner had fixed glaring issues like a broken front porch step.

 

Cleveland DSA members Anna Powaski and Chad Falatic talk to Cleveland resident Frank Hawkins about the home he was renting and the problems he was having with his landlord back in August. Still, Powaski hands them several flyers, warning them that an eviction could make it difficult to find rental housing in the future. The flyers include how to access Cleveland’s Right to Counsel program, a leaflet on Cleveland and Cuyahoga County’s rental-assistance program, and other information on tenant rights in Ohio.

 

It’s crucial information that could help keep renters stay in their homes despite the social and economic challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Cleveland DSA’s eviction-prevention door-knocking campaign has been happening biweekly for the past two months. As of mid-September, the group had used Cleveland Housing Court records to find, and knock on the doors of, 730 homes where eviction cases had been filed against the tenants.

 

The results have been hard to quantify so far. Sometimes, tenants aren’t home, or have already moved on. Other times, they’ve already made plans to move out, even though they haven’t yet attended their hearings to try to defend themselves.

 

But there are some success stories. Powaski says that on multiple occasions tenants have told DSA members they weren’t even aware of an eviction before DSA representatives stopped by. Additionally, some people have been connected to Cleveland’s Right to Counsel program.

 

“We had a woman [who] qualified for a lawyer through the Right to Counsel program,” says Powaski, who is the Cleveland DSA’s communications director. “They hooked her up with an attorney and she attended her hearing via Zoom. She said her landlord got caught lying about her rent payment. She was allowed to stay in the property, and she has until December to pay back the rent for July that she owes.”

 

DSA outreach has been very helpful in getting the word out about the Right to Counsel program, says Melanie Shakarian, director of communications for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland. It’s especially important because, despite the federal moratorium on evictions announced in September, evictions are still happening (see sidebar).

 

Shakarian says the DSA’s work is one part of a multi-pronged approach to get this information out to tenants.

 

“It’s one really important element of a totality of outreach that tenants need to get,” explains Shakarian. “Legally, they get the summons. Separately, they get a letter from United Way to follow up on the summons, then, the DSA outreach. There’s other communications we’re doing through the public libraries, through the Food Bank, through social media and other paid advertisements.”

 

Legal Aid has handled about 150 cases that qualified under the Right to Counsel ordinance since June, Shakarian says. Since Housing Court went back into session in June, a total of about 1,700 evictions have been filed in the court, according to records analyzed by the Eviction Lab project housed at Princeton University.

 

Cleveland’s Right to Counsel program—which is available for anyone under 100% of the poverty line with a child in the house—could provide critical help. A 2015 study from the Institute for Research on Poverty found that an estimated 90% of landlords have legal representation in eviction cases, while only 10% of tenants do.

 

Meanwhile, Judge W. Moná Scott says the Housing Court recently started asking lawyers from the Legal Aid Society to be present during eviction hearings to ensure that if a tenant does qualify for Right to Counsel, they get representation they need (the lawyers can help them get connected to rental assistance money, too).

 

Despite the assistance, evictions are still being granted. In September, Scott said 344 eviction cases were filed, with 180 granted; in August, 437 were filed and 164 were granted. At the same time, plenty of cases did get resolved through the court’s mediation program, (almost 80 in August, for example). Typically, tenants agree to move out in those situations while the landlord agrees to drop the case.

 

Cleveland DSA member Anna Powaski holds some of the materials the activist group has been handing out to Cleveland tenants at risk of being evicted. Revelations from visiting tenants’ homes

Powaski and Falatic say some common themes have emerged for the Cleveland DSA after going to multiple door-to-door events over the last few months.

 

Often, these people are essential workers with children, struggling to pay their rent in homes where landlords have long ignored their obligations to fix problems, Falatic says.

 

“Nobody talks to these people face to face,” he says. “They just get sent papers with a ton of small text information in it. When you’re really exhausted and beaten down… that method of delivery is not good enough.”

 

Judge Scott said she noticed a similar trend in her court, with many tenants simply not showing up to court. She says she feels there’s a “communication gap” with tenants not knowing about the assistance available to them.

 

Another commonality: Many don’t know that their hearings with the Housing Court are being heard virtually, Powaski says.

 

She says the DSA Cleveland group acknowledges that they’re not going to get to every eviction case. The DSA group only has so many members and volunteers, plus, some might worry about potentially spreading COVID-19 while meeting people in-person. However, canvassing is a safe practice so long as everyone is staying distant and wearing masks, said Suzanne Hrusch, an environmental sanitarian at the Cuyahoga County Board of health.

 

Since the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) eviction moratorium was enacted on September 1, the DSA has begun taking the CDC eviction prevention forms to tenants and even helping them fill it out. That’s important because, Powaski says, tenants they talk to are almost “never” aware of it in the first place. The forms are required for eviction relief.

 

Frank Hawkins is one of the tenants Falatic and Powaski spoke to during one of their door-to-door campaigns in late August, heading through the Kinsman and Lee-Miles neighborhoods.

 

Hawkins says he was planning on moving out of his rental housing after his landlord filed an eviction notice against him for non-payment of rent. That’s after he said the property manager refused to renew his lease earlier this year and refused to pay him for work he did to fix issues in the home. This is while he’s been working long hours at a rubber factory throughout the pandemic.

 

“I just think they’re trying to push me around,” says Hawkins.

 

Hawkins says he checked and found he wasn’t eligible for Cleveland’s right to counsel program because he doesn’t have a child in the home. Powaski recommended he still call the Legal Aid Society to get advice on his situation, noting that the DSA couldn’t provide legal advice.

 

“Even if you don’t get a lawyer, these are some good tips on how to represent yourself,” says Powaski, handing over another flyer on landlord-tenant law.

 

A few days after the DSA members stopped by Hawkins represented himself at his virtual eviction hearing, although his efforts were hampered by a spotty internet connection. Ultimately, his landlord’s attorney agreed to drop the case if Hawkins moved.

 

Several days later, Hawkins moved out of Cleveland altogether. While he wasn’t happy with not being able to defend himself, or having to move out so quickly, he was glad the DSA stopped by his home. He said it gave him a chance to feel heard by somebody.

 

Abigail Staudt, managing attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, says the number of eviction filings in Housing Court represents only a portion of the overall problem of housing instability in Cleveland.

 

Even outside of formal eviction proceedings, some landlords may be resorting to so-called “self-help evictions,” where they illegally change the locks of a rental home, or shut off the utilities in the home, says Staudt, adding that her office has only helped with a few of those cases since March but she is sure more are flying under the radar.

 

Cleveland DSA members Anna Powaski and Chad Falatic head toward the home of a local renter who faces an eviction case. Changing the status quo?

In Washington D.C., the Metro D.C. DSA chapter has previously tried a similar door-to-door tactic to try to educate tenants on their rights and prevent evictions. The office even has a guide on how to do it.

 

Evan Spath, an organizer with the group’s “Stomp out Slumlords” campaign, says at the height of its door-to-door canvasses, his group was doing 300 to 500 door knocks a month, with about one-third of those resulting in conversations with tenants. Tenants who spoke with DSA were 80% more likely to show up in court, he said.

 

“We found that generally, the problem wasn’t that they were getting evicted (after showing up in court),” says Spath. “A lot of them would work out a payment plan with the landlord, go into debt, or just float around to find other properties. It’s just this sort of unsustainable status quo in place of evictions.”

 

Once the pandemic hit, Spath says his group has mostly pivoted away from that tactic, fearing it would put tenants or organizers at risk of contracting COVID-19. In addition, D.C. has a continuing local moratorium on evictions in place.

 

Instead, Spath says his group has been working with the D.C. Tenants Union to organize tenants in individual apartment buildings to fight for better living conditions—with tenants using the threat of rent strikes and holding their rent in escrow until the landlords assent to make needed repairs. The group has managed to organize, or is in the process of organizing, 23 buildings so far.

 

Elsewhere, in places like Minneapolis, tenants have organized to achieve a rare feat: outright buying up the buildings they live in from their landlords.

 

Back in Cleveland, local DSA chapter members Powaski and Falatic say they hope their door-to-door campaign is a way to build “working class power” in Cleveland.

 

“This is the only option we as Americans have left because in a lot of ways, our representatives have failed us,” says Falatic.

 

There’s one thing that the DSA members and Staudt all agreed on in separate interviews: Additional aid from state or federal government needs to be made available to renters (or to their landlords).

 

“We’re going on six months of no rent paid for many of them [landlords],” says Staudt. “They’ve got mortgages. They’ve got bills to pay, and many of them own just a couple of properties.”

 

For Powaski and Falatic, the conversations with tenants in hard-off areas of the city has them thinking about a larger picture. Falatic says he hopes some of the people they talk to end up joining the DSA, although anyone can volunteer to help with the DSA canvassing. Powaski said inviting friends along on the door-to-door campaign has opened their eyes.

 

“When thinking about a citywide tenants union, about rent striking, about working against a ruling class, this totally changes their perspective and gets them wanting to be more involved,” says Powaski.

 

Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America. You can email him at [email protected], or find him on Twitter. This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including FreshWater Cleveland.

Read more articles by Conor Morris.

Conor Morris reports for Cleveland.com focusing on poverty in the city including housing, health and education. Morris covered Appalachian southeast Ohio for the weekly newspaper The Athens News for six years. He reported on Athens County, but especially local government, the campus of Ohio University (his alma mater), cops and courts, and the social and economic issues facing the residents of Ohio’s poorest county. Morris helped guide The News toward two Newspaper of the Year awards in its division of the annual Ohio News Media Association Hooper Contest. Morris himself won six first-place Hooper awards for his reporting over the years, including for a story series about police and hospital failures in a sexual- assault investigation in Athens. Morris was born in Marietta, Ohio.
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