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Ohio renters, landlords nervous as rents come due amid coronavirus fallout

“But evictions have nonetheless come to a halt because county courts are not hearing eviction cases. Franklin County, for example, has put an eight-week moratorium on eviction hearings.”

By Jim Weiker 
The Columbus Dispatch
Posted Apr 1, 2020 at 3:02 PM   

Many landlords say they want to work with tenants who have lost their jobs because of the coronavirus outbreak, but they can’t simply forgive rent because it would drive them out of business. Some are waiving late fees and allowing tenants to spread out payments once they get back to work.

For Ohio renters and landlords, Wednesday loomed large. It was the first day that rent was due after coronavirus-related restrictions cost thousands of Ohioans their jobs.

While some estimates say that up to 40% of tenants won’t be able to pay their rent in April, few people in Ohio expect the damage to be that high. But everyone is bracing for the fallout.

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“It hasn’t happened yet, but every landlord is asking the same question, ‘What do we do?”’ said Dimitri Hatzifotinos, a lawyer with Willis Law Firm in Columbus, who represents the Columbus Apartment Association and the managers of more than 100,000 apartments.

“Tomorrow is the first day of this crisis,” Hatzifotinos said Tuesday.

Evictions throughout Ohio remain legal, with some exceptions such as U.S. Housing and Urban Development properties. But evictions have nonetheless come to a halt because county courts are not hearing eviction cases. Franklin County, for example, has put an eight-week moratorium on eviction hearings.

Landlords say that they don’t want to evict good tenants anyway. Evictions are expensive, and replacing tenants during the crisis will be a challenge.

“When you lose tenants, that’s costly, but if you have a tenant who has been a good tenant, why would you want to get rid of that tenant?” said Eric Willison, a Columbus lawyer who handles tenant and landlord cases. “And who do you replace him with? Who’s moving now?”

But Willison and apartment managers said that landlords can’t do what jobless tenants want most: forgive rent.

“We still have mortgages that have to be paid,” said John Wymer, president of Oakwood Management, which manages about 11,000 central Ohio apartments. “We still have to cover payroll, and we hope they (tenants) understand there are still utility bills to be paid to keep the lights on.”

To help apartment managers and others, Gov. Mike DeWine signed an order Wednesday urging commercial lenders to grant a 90-day reprieve on collections and to negotiate with borrowers on a repayment plan.

Instead of moving to evict, landlords plan to offer “forbearance agreements” to tenants who can’t pay rent. Such agreements require tenants to pay rent while waiving late fees and spreading the missed rent payment over a few months once the tenant returns to work.

For some tenants, that isn’t a viable solution, said Bill Faith, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio.

“Even before the pandemic, 400,000 renting households in Ohio were already paying more than half their income for rent,” Faith said.

“I think we have to be realistic about what restaurant workers, beauty shop workers, bartenders, retail clerks, all these low-wage workers, what they can afford when they get back to work.”

Faith, however, doesn’t expect landlords to simply waive rent.

“What choice do they have?” he said. “They have mortgages to pay, staff to pay, upkeep to pay. That’s not greed; that’s legitimate.”

Faith believes the only solution is federal rent assistance that goes straight to landlords on behalf of tenants who lost jobs because of the coronavirus outbreak.

“We need to get rental assistance to all the newly unemployed workers in the state,” he said. “If we don’t get them help, we’ll see massive homelessness like we’ve never seen.”

While most Ohio landlords will discover the depth of the crisis in the next few days, those who serve students had an early taste, after colleges closed classroom doors in early or mid-March.

When Ohio State University sent students packing on March 15, much off-campus-area housing also emptied as students headed home.

Linda Gottfried’s daughter, an Ohio State senior, went to live with her family in Cleveland. Gottfried reached out to Buckeye Real Estate, which managed her daughter’s apartment building near North High Street and 11th Avenue, hoping the company would waive at least some rent on the four remaining months of her daughter’s lease.

“I contacted them directly and said she has three jobs and she’s not working any of them, and she has April, May, June and July coming due,” Gottfried said. “I wasn’t looking to stick them with anything, but maybe we could pick up two months and they could pick up the other. They said, no, they would offer us a payment plan.”

Wayne Garland of Buckeye Real Estate said the company is trying to work with tenants facing difficulties but can’t simply eliminate rent.

“We’d go under if we did that.”


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