Rental assistance program hampered by delays, bad messaging can hurt tenants and landlords, cause tsunami of eviction.
CLEVELAND — Neal Robinson packs his things.
Robinson is among nearly 250,000 other Ohioans facing evictions as a result of the pandemic — all despite the state receiving more than $560 million in federal funds earmarked specifically for aid to the lodging.
Compounding the problem, a review by 3News Investigates found that Ohio could lose more than $100 million that the state has yet to distribute to renters and landlords statewide.
Robinson’s eviction from his flat came after a job loss, a case of Covid-19 and a neurological disorder that still affects his daily life.
“I was getting paid every week, but like I said, as much as I was earning, I was giving. And I just fell behind. And could never catch up,” Robinson said.
Robinson, who is single, asked for help but is now temporarily living with friends.
“I know I’m not the only one in this position…but you know,” he said. “People have to keep their word.”
Rent assistance funds came through Congress, one of three spending programs designed to help Americans during the pandemic.
Ohio received the 9th highest total distribution in the United States, while its housing costs remain among the lowest in the country.
But instead of developing an online platform for residents to seek help, Ohio shifted that responsibility to local community action agencies.
Some agencies, like in Summit County, spent every dollar received from the state. Others, like Stark County, have struggled.
And others, like CHN Housing, which handled distribution for Cuyahoga County, said they also spent all the state money they received.
However, the agency declined to discuss the rental assistance program when contacted by 3News Investigates.
Ohio ranked 43rd among US states in spending just 18% of its federal covid aid dollars. Another study gave Ohio a rating of zero stars, the lowest possible. for its rental assistance program.
In a 10-page improvement plan provided to federal officials, the state pledged to improve its efforts by the Feb. 28 deadline.
Todd Walker, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Development which oversaw and distributed the funds, said those efforts paid off.
He said distribution had accelerated significantly since the November report.
However, he admitted that the state should return $104 million if it cannot reallocate those remaining dollars to the counties.
Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro told 3News Investigates that several factors contributed to the delays, including the lack of a statewide application system.
“To still have people in need that you could spend and not raise money to help them, that doesn’t strike me as good practice,” Shapiro said.
Federal funding requires tenants to be directly impacted by Covid-19, such as job loss. The process is bogged down by bureaucracy, staffing issues and poor messaging, the lawyer said.
Since the early days of the pandemic, housing advocates have warned of a tsunami of evictions. They criss-crossed neighborhoods as a moratorium was coming to an end.
Additionally, courts like the Cleveland Housing Court have required tenants to be assigned attorneys from the Legal Aid Society.
And while the eviction cases have remained unchanged, advocates fear it could last longer if Ohio fails to connect its funds to those in need.
Hazel Remesch, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, said it was essential that all available funds be distributed to those in need.
“It would be a huge loss for the community if we lost this funding,” she said. “This is a critical part of ensuring that we continue to emerge from the pandemic and that we continue to address poverty issues in our region.
“If you take rent assistance out of the equation, this tsunami is probably going to happen.”