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Home · Property Management · COVID-19 · Bipartisan state proposal would allow renters to seal eviction cases tracked by landlords

legalBipartisan state legislation would allow some renters to seal their eviction cases and, supporters say, open the door to safe, affordable housing.

On Tuesday, state Sens. Stephanie Kunze, R-Hilliard, and Hearcel Craig, D-Columbus, introduced Senate Bill 158 to create a pathway for tenants to expunge evictions. The law has yet to be assigned to a committee.

“It seems like it’s a no-brainer,” said Bill Faith, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio. “People during this pandemic hit a rough patch. They get an eviction. An opportunity to get that expunged seems like it should be made available.”

Craig and Kunze first introduced the proposed law in July as unemployment skyrocketed and renters fell behind.

“Across the state, rent is skyrocketing while wages are barely increasing,” Craig said. “Many people have been set back due to circumstances beyond their control. Temporary hardships should not turn into lifelong barriers to safe, stable and affordable housing.”

Their bill was assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee in September but received no hearing. Now, advocates are hopeful for swift consideration with landlords in Akron and across Ohio planning to evict more tenants in the coming months.

“Even the hardened legislators could understand that people hit rough patches and they should have the opportunity to have their records expunged, because it drives so much of future rental decisions,” Faith said.

“We had been having meetings about this legislation before the pandemic,” Craig said. “But now it is absolutely essential that we make sure that those impacted by COVID-19 have lifelong housing stability. Several states, including Minnesota, Nevada and Oregon, already have eviction expungement laws in place. We hope Ohio will be next.”

If passed, the bill would give local judges a framework for expunging evictions that are at least 3 years old. Some courts already allow this.

“There are a few court rules throughout the state,” said Megan O’Dell with the Ohio Poverty Law Center, a proponent of the bill. Opportunities for expungement have been recently enacted by local lawmakers in Marion, Franklin County and Hamilton County.

Filling out a form in Cleveland’s housing court starts tenants on a path to concealing eviction filings or judgments from public view. Even if sealed, though, the renter would still have to disclose a prior eviction if asked on an apartment application.

The new state law also would not permit a tenant to conceal a prior eviction if asked by a prospective landlord. If passed, renters seeking to seal evictions that are 3 or more years old would be granted “rebuttable presumption,”  meaning judges would favor their arguments. If the eviction is 7 or more years old, the new law says the judge “shall” seal the case, unless a landlord gives a good reason why the eviction should not be sealed.

And, even in cases contested by landlords, the law would permit judges to move forward with the expungement if the case “is no longer a reasonable predictor of future tenant behavior” or sealing the case “is clearly in the interests of justice.”

Landlords often screen rental applicants for evictions, which are kept in publicly searchable court records even if the case was dismissed or the tenant won. Prior evictions predict future ability to pay rent, some landlords argue. Missing rent is the overwhelming reason evictions are filed.

The six judges of the Akron Municipal Court, which serves Akron, Bath, Fairlawn, Lakemore, Mogadore, Richfield and Springfield, met in February 2020 to vote on whether to adopt new eviction rules that would require landlords seeking evictions to register their properties or create a process for renters to seal eviction cases.

At the time, Akron was in the midst of an eviction crisis. In those first two months of 2020 before the pandemic suddenly and temporarily shut down all civil cases, evictions filings were up 66% compared to January and February of 2017, 2018 or 2019. And the Eviction Lab at Harvard University used 2016 filings to determine that among larger cities, Akron already had the highest eviction rate in Ohio and the 24th highest in the nation.

When it came time to vote, the judges approved the requirement that landlords seeking to evict must register their rentals with the city and county (though magistrates continue to grant evictions to unregistered landlords). But after landlords got the judges to agree that tenants must pay all back rent and court costs before seeking expungement, the judges rejected the second proposal on sealing evictions.

The expungement rule would have been limited to cases in which the tenant prevailed or the landlord did not object. The court said the new rules were never intended to decrease the number of evictions, which has been the goal of a local eviction task force in the months since.

Housing advocates and tenants argue that evictions can prevent renters from getting apartments or force them into situations with landlords who don’t upkeep property.

“If there’s an eviction on the record, it could really blackball people from getting housing,” Faith said.

Source: beaconjournal.com

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