Shaunta Sanchez was working a full-time job as a housekeeper in March 2020 when her phone rang. It was her employer, laying her off due to COVID-19.
The Slavic Village mother, with four children at home, was told to file for unemployment.
Sanchez started worrying about the rent.
A national eviction moratorium, extended through March 31 by the Biden administration, is intended to keep renters in their homes through the hardship of the coronavirus pandemic. The numerous rent assistance programs, bolstered by federal dollars, are also in place to prevent evictions.
But in most cases, the help is short-term and comes with strings attached.
Tenants have already faced many obstacles—loss of jobs, unexpected expenses, and bureaucratic red tape when trying to collect benefits—that put them in arrears.
In Slavic Village, about 300 residents behind on their rent were able to stave off eviction with the help of the nonprofit Slavic Village Development, which drew on $20,000 it received from the Cleveland Foundation COVID-19 Rapid Relief Fund.
Sanchez was one of them.
“It's been kind of overwhelming for people like me who were in a good position,” she says. “Before this started, I wasn't behind on the rent, I wasn't behind on my bills, there was food on the table, everything was perfect. Then COVID came, and then everything was gone in the blink of an eye.”
Slavic Village Development was able to cut through some of the restrictions that have been most stress-inducing for low-income residents— burdensome paperwork requirements and housing inspections.
Lynn Rodemann, Slavic Village Development housing support services, “It was sobering to learn that people were being denied aid, not because they didn’t need it, but because they were the properties they lived in couldn’t pass a cursory inspection to prove it was ‘warm safe and dry,’” says Lynn Rodemann, who is in charge of housing support services for Slavic Village Development.
The catch-22 is an example, Rodemann says, of how the pandemic has magnified the issues Slavic Village residents were already struggling with—including income inequality, housing instability, and health disparities.
Scrambling for help
After she was laid off, Sanchez found herself embroiled in a dispute with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services over her unemployment claim. The agency said she had quit her job. But Sanchez says she provided the department with the proper paperwork from her former employer, but she was still denied.
By October, she found herself with an eviction notice on her front door. Sanchez was able to avoid eviction for a short time with money from the CARES Act through the Coronavirus Relief Fund, which provides payments to state and local governments to help them deal with the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. But the money didn’t last.
Next, she turned to the Salvation Army of Greater Cleveland, which helped Sanchez with rent. But again, it was only temporary.
Like Sanchez, other Slavic Village residents—as well as other Clevelanders in need of assistance—have found themselves being denied aid because they were unable to assemble the proper paperwork. Renters have found it difficult to track down social security cards, birth certificates, and other documents.
The paperwork problem returned for Sanchez when she turned to the Northeast Ohio nonprofit EDEN Inc., which helps those who have fallen behind on rent and face eviction. Sanchez was unable to provide EDEN with the documentation they requested regarding her unemployment in ample time, so they were unable to help.
With eviction hanging over their heads, Sanchez was discussing the family's plight with her oldest son Christopher, who volunteers for Slavic Village Stewards, a neighborhood assistance group.
“Son, I don't know what to do, we're going to have to move,” Sanchez recalls telling Christopher. “I don't know where to go, we have an eviction over me."
Christopher reached out to Rodemann to ask if she could make a rental recommendation, in case the family did get evicted.
After hearing the story, Rodemann and Slavic Village Development were able to help her with money from the Cleveland Foundation Covid-19 Rapid Response Fund to pay the $1,500 dollars in rent that Sanchez owed.
Slavic Village Development uses the dollars from the Cleveland Foundation to provide relief for renters who didn’t qualify for CARES Act funds, or whose housing didn’t pass inspection.
"I was still in eviction court, so I had to move out by January 1, but with them helping me with this $1,500, my landlord accepted it and I got to stay,” she says. “But that was the only reason why.”
Navigating hurdles to assistance
In addition to receiving funding from the Cleveland Foundation to assist residents behind on their rent, Slavic Village Development has partnered with other organizations that provide relief, including Cleveland Housing Network Partners (CHN) and EDEN. Rodemann says the programs those organizations administer have strict requirements that must be met before aid is given, including income verification and other paperwork about people who live in a household.
"There were a lot of hurdles put in the way to access that funding—it could be digital divide, or access to a printer, or an extra set of hands to help walk someone through," says Rodemann. When we were reaching out to the housing networks who were distributing these funds, we would say to them, 'How can we help to make sure these almost 300 residents were able to connect with the things that they need?'"
Elaine Gimmel, executive director of EDENElaine Gimmel, executive director of EDEN, understands and shares the frustration of residents who are stymied by the myriad documents needed to obtain certain forms of aid. Two of the main relief programs that EDEN administers, the Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) program and Home Investment Partnership Program (HOME), require income verification, as well as an inspection of the rental property before any aid can be approved.
"Because we have to gather more documents with relation to income, in relation to the issue being COVID-related, and having to do an inspection, there has been a lot of barriers, because at this time, people aren't always able to gather the documents needed in order to be approved, so we have not been helping as many households as we thought we were going to," Gimmel says.
Gimmel estimates that EDEN has helped around 1,000 households with rent issues since the pandemic began.
Gimmel says EDEN has been in conversations with the city and county with getting some of the money from the recently approved coronavirus relief bill. She said there would be more flexibility in dispersing the funds to those in need, as opposed to the ESG and HOME dollars they currently administer.
Helping those in need
Many Clevelanders who owe back rent have turned to CHN for help.
Since July 2020, CHN—which administers COVID-19 rental assistance for Cuyahoga County—has received over 13,000 applications for help. To date, the non-profit has been able to assist roughly 4,000 unique households, according to Kate Carden, CHN's director of financial mobility programs
Carden understands that gathering all the paperwork to get help can be a daunting task, so CHN has tried to make their application for assistance as "user friendly" as possible.
Kate Carden, CHN's director of financial mobility programsThe application is smart phone friendly, so a computer isn't needed to apply. If an applicant doesn't have access to a smartphone or a computer, that person must call CHN to complete the application over the phone. CHN will accept a self-certification of income, as well as the COVID-19 related hardship for the rental assistance application. If an applicant is only applying for rental assistance, the documentation requirements include proof of citizenship and household size.
Carden says anyone who has experienced a COVID-19 related hardship since March 2020 might be eligible for aid with rent. CHN looks at income guidelines and household size to determine if they can provide assistance. Those income limits may vary depending on the type of funding being used for each case. In many cases, people who are at 80% or below area median income are eligible for some sort of help with rent arrears.
CHN is also approached by residents who need assistance in paying back rent, but whose financial distress wasn't caused by COVID-19. While CHN is unable to administer CARES Act money in that circumstance, they do have another fund to help those people.
"Wherever we can, we are looking to resolve that situation with the tenant themselves, or we will ask that tenant to call our great partner United Way's 211 First Call [HelpLink]," Carden says.
EDEN's Gimmel says her organization has worked closely with CHN, which she described as "the front door for rental assistance." If those households who have been assisted by CHN are still in need of help after a four-month period, then they can turn to EDEN, which uses money from ESG and HOME to help pay for up to nine months of rent assistance.
EDEN's income limit for assistance is at 50% or below area median income ($25,183), although other sources of aid EDEN can call on have even more restrictions.
Long term help
While cutting through the mound of paperwork and creating lower barriers, like Slavic Village Development did, can help when people are in crisis, more long-term fixes are needed. That includes an examination of the required inspection process, Rodemann says.
"If the property you are renting doesn't pass a 'safe, warm, and dry' inspection, then you don't qualify for that long-term funding." she says. "We're working closely with the agencies to put pressure on them [landlords] to comply, but some of them are refusing to comply."
Much of the funding EDEN administers is long-term rent relief. Gimmel says some landlords are reluctant to take part in the programs because the gathering of the needed documents is a hindrance; others aren’t trusting of the system; while still others are having their own financial problems and can’t afford to make the necessary repairs.
While CHN's Carden has found that most of the landlords are willing to work with tenants, if needed CHN will turn to their partners at Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, as well as staff at the housing courts who have been willing to step in to provide mediation services.
Rodemann, a landlord herself, understands that some people who own rental property are facing their own financial hardships due to COVID-19 and can’t make all the necessary repairs to pass inspection. She thinks a different approach to the process could benefit landlords and tenants alike.
"If their property doesn't pass inspection, what we should do, if this is a program designed to prevent homelessness, we should catch them up and hold them accountable, after everyone has got the money they are owed, to make those repairs in a timely manner," says Rodemann. "There should be some nuance to it, but there was not."
Rodemann, Gimmel, and Carden all have high hopes that the incoming Biden administration will be able to pass a new COVID-19 relief package, so that fewer people will be looking at eviction notices in 2021.
This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including FreshWater Cleveland. Report for America Corps Member Conor Morris contributed to this story.
Dan Polletta is a veteran Northeast Ohio broadcaster and writer. He has written extensively about arts and culture, with a special interest in jazz.