Willoughby resident Sandy Naffah lost both of her jobs—at a school and a beauty salon—when the pandemic-related shutdowns went into effect last year. Not long after, she fell behind on rent.
Naffah says she struggled to get help from local agencies, including money to cover rent, because she said her landlord did not submit the proper paperwork. She says after about three months of missed payments, her property manager began calling and harassing her, despite a promise to forgive her back rent due to the pandemic.
“They started texting, emailing, leaving voicemails on my phone, demanding that I make some sort of payment,” says Naffah. “And I saw the writing on the wall that I’m going to end up getting evicted.”
Naffah decided to break her lease and left her apartment to avoid having an eviction on her record, which will make it harder for her to rent again.
Housing advocates say tenants like Naffah need more time to access assistance or find additional employment to cover their rents. City councils in Lakewood, South Euclid and Cleveland Heights are considering one option that might help—called “Pay to Stay.”
Similar legislation was already approved in Toledo and Yellow Springs in 2020. Reem Subei, an attorney with Advocates for Basic Legal Equity (ABLE), said Pay to Stay is meant to “enshrine a protection for tenants” who have had an eviction filed against them in court for non-payment of rent.
Having these Pay to Stay laws on the books would mean tenants behind on their rents are granted the right to stay in their homes if they come up with the rent (and any late fees) they owe before the eviction is granted by the court.
“It’s based on a very simple concept – if you pay your rent, you should be able to stay in your home,” Subei says. “I know that doesn’t sound controversial. However, the (current) law does not give tenants even that basic right.”
A growing group of advocacy organizations, including the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH), Black Lives Matter Cleveland and the YWCA Greater Cleveland, are also advocating for pay-to-stay measures to be adopted in Northeast Ohio. Cleveland City Council member Tony Brancatelli says some city council members have discussed the concept, but no ordinance has been proposed.
NEOCH officials argue in a factsheet on its website that Pay to Stay measures are needed because Ohio is one of only five states in the U.S. that allow landlords to file for an eviction as soon as a rent payment is missed—without offering the tenant extra time to come up with the money (although there is a three-day notice period where the tenant can move out before the case is filed). In Arizona, for example, tenants have 10 days to come up with their rent before the eviction can be filed in court.
Note: The Cleveland Street Chronicle, which is supported by NEOCH, is a member of NEOSOJO.
Naffah is a member of NEOCH’s working group that is advocating for pay-to-stay ordinances in the region. She says she thinks she wouldn’t have had to have broken her lease if she’d had Pay to Stay as a guarantee, because she would have had more time to come up with the rent she owed.
“It’s horrible; tenants really are at the mercy of the property managers and they wield too much power,” Naffah says. “So, if you have that ordinance in place the tenant has some recourse.”
Mike Unger, a Cleveland Heights City Council member, says he’s exploring introducing a Pay to Stay ordinance because, as the past president of the board of the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, he recognizes the “destabilizing” impacts evictions can have on families.
Unger and Subei both note that people of color see increased rates of evictions filed against them, especially single mothers. According to a 2019 Case Western Reserve University study of 2013-2016 Cleveland Housing Court data, 78% of the evictions filed during that time were against a woman head of the household. About 77% were filed against an African-American, and 60% were filed against people with children.
Pay to Stay legislation seems like a way to “level the playing field” for those tenants, says Sally Martin, housing manager for the City of South Euclid, especially with the challenges presented by the pandemic.
“We know we’ve had just a tremendous number of evictions, even just here in South Euclid over the past five years,” says Martin. “Eviction docket day is a crowded room, and so anything we can do to keep that from happening is a good thing.”
She says the city began considering a Pay to Stay proposal as part of an effort to minimize the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on housing.
“You’re not filing a foreclosure on somebody who’s one day late on their mortgage,” Martin says. “There’s a sort of grace period there. But there isn’t such a grace period for tenants, which isn’t fair.”
One important caveat is that Pay to Stay measures only help if the tenant is able to come up with the money to pay the landlord. This is easier to do now with more rental assistance available for tenants impacted by the pandemic, but there’s only so much of that money available. Subei also notea that Pay to Stay is only a defense against evictions filed for not paying rent; landlords can still file evictions for other reasons.
Ralph McGreevy, executive vice president for the Northeast Ohio Apartment Association, says his group is opposed to Pay to Stay measures. He saya it’s not fair to force landlords to accept late rent payments at the “11th hour” because that would force landlords to keep on tenants who are unreliable with their rent payments.
“The past predicts the future,” says McGreevy. “When you’re running a business of housing, the banks don’t allow you to be unpredictable. The predictability is what gets you your mortgage, and that’s what keeps people in their unit—they commit to a certain payment on a certain date.”
Subei notes that so far in Ohio, each municipality has structured its Pay to Stay ordinances differently. In Yellow Springs, the ordinance is temporary—only for a year—to test out the practice. In Toledo, the ordinance doesn’t grant somebody the full right to stay in their rental upon payment of rent, it just codifies it as an “equity defense” that the tenant can use under Ohio law, explains Subei. That means there’s still a chance the tenant could be evicted if the landlord doesn't want to accept the money.
Subei says she has brought up the Pay to Stay ordinance in cases with landlords in Toledo, and knows some others have too. Toledo Municipal Court magistrate Alan Michalak says he believes fewer evictions are being granted against tenants since Toledo’s Pay to Stay ordinance was implemented, although he didn’t have hard data to back that up.
Meanwhile, Marianne McQueen, vice president of Yellow Springs Village Council, said her village, near Dayton, is unsure how much its ordinance has been used.
This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including FreshWater Cleveland. Conor Morris is a Report for America corps member and Taylor Haggerty is a reporter with WCPN.