Akron housing groups demand right to counseling, rental assistance fund in eviction prevention report

A new report to help curb the city’s Akron eviction crisis recommends free legal advice for tenants on eviction proceedings and more education for landlords and tenants about their rights. Two Akron nonprofits — Community Legal Aid and the Fair Housing Connection Service — will release the report on Monday.

There is a power imbalance in the eviction proceedings, because tenants have to file the case for themselves, while landlords have experienced lawyers, said Stephen McGarrity, executive director of Community Legal Aid.

“They will lose out in cases, even though they may have a legitimate defense, because … it is a practical problem. They are not able to present evidence to a judge in the right way,” McGarrity said. “This is why it is important to give tenants a lawyer so they can from getting an equal footing when they go to court.”

Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan announced earlier this year that the city hopes to implement the Right to Counsel program by the end of 2022. A city spokesperson told Ideastream Public Media that there are no updates to its participation at this time.

Another big problem identified at the summit was a lack of education for landlords and renters about their legal rights, said Lauren Green Hall, associate director of the Fair Housing Contact Service. She said an education campaign could help.

“People don’t know what their rights and responsibilities are, and there are resources out there. People don’t know they exist,” she said.

Green-Hull added that one of the report’s most pressing recommendations is for the city to create a permanent rental assistance fund. She said the COVID-19 rental assistance programs will soon end, at a time when rental prices are soaring and many rental properties have been pulled off the market in recent years.

“It will be worse, in my opinion, than before the pandemic, because our housing stock has changed drastically,” she said.

McGarrity added that he expects evacuation rates to rise to pre-pandemic levels.

“These are problems we will all be facing in the very near future,” he said. “We all know what’s coming. We all talked about it at the eviction summit that these are things we’ll be facing in the near future. If we’re not ready for that, then what’s our excuse?”

Among Ohio’s major cities, Akron had the state’s worst eviction rate in 2016 and ranked 24thThe tenth in the country, according to the Princeton University Evacuation Laboratory.

The report, seen by Ideastream prior to its release, is based on feedback collected from tenants, landlords, community activists and elected officials during the Prevent Eviction Summit hosted by the two housing groups in April.

After the event, organizers wanted to put together a report on concrete action steps backed by housing advocates and city officials, but disagreements over some of the recommendations caused momentum to fade, McGarrytti said.

“After the summit, we started to have follow-ups with different organizations, the courts, the city, and unfortunately, it was clear that there was not consensus on everything about how to proceed,” McGarrity said.

Spokespersons for the Akron Mayor’s Office and Municipal Court did not immediately respond to a request for comment by Edstream Public Media.

In addition, housing groups delayed the report out of respect for the Gayland Walker family and Akron community after the police shooting of Walker, an unarmed black man, in late June, McGarrity said.

He said that despite the delays, the groups wanted to summarize the summit and make recommendations on how to move forward.

“We owe something to the community in terms of what happened at the summit, and where we are going. So instead of it being a plan of action that we were hoping to get agreement on at the community level, it is a report on what was discussed and the ideas that emerged after The top,” McGarrity said.

Some of the other recommendations in the report, such as a review of the city’s housing code, are already in the works. McGarrity said that some city council members are looking into the code and may introduce new or updated ordinances.

He said he is also encouraged by the city council’s new Safe Housing and Guidance Committee, in which council members are reaching out to voters about housing conditions and potential solutions.

“The city council certainly agreed. They made a real effort, I think, before and after the summit to move forward with their plans,” he added.

Other solutions identified in the report include implementing a free brokerage program for landlords and renters; Review city and county landlord records to identify gaps and better strategies; Creating better pathways to homeownership and developing a special housing court in Akron Municipal Court.

Green-Hull and McGarrity acknowledged that not all proposals have a specific course of action, and that many require political will and funding to get off the ground.

In the meantime, the legal aid organization will step up its efforts to help more tenants in eviction courts, McGarrytti said.

Green Hall added that the Fair Housing Contact Service is preparing to launch a campaign to educate landlords and tenants about their rights in the fall.

“It is difficult to move forward when not all the players are sitting at the table and ready to make the sacrifices necessary to make changes,” she said.

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