COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Despite a three-month extension of a CDC eviction moratorium that was set to expire Wednesday, dozens of renters sat in chairs spaced at least six feet apart inside the Greater Columbus Convention Center Wednesday morning.
They were waiting their turn to make their case before a Franklin County magistrate.
The Franklin County Municipal Court moved its eviction proceedings to the spacious convention center in 2020 to allow for social distancing. They limit the caseload to 100 per day.
Melissa Benson, the managing attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Columbus’ (LASC) housing team, said the docket is always full.
“We’ve seen very steady increases in filings, closer to pre-pandemic levels,” Benson said. “In some weeks, it has been higher.”
One name on Wednesday’s docket was Zach Lantz.
“I’m hoping that the courts will see that we haven’t done anything wrong,” Lantz said.
The 23-year-old father of three lost his job in the food service industry early in the pandemic, when many restaurants closed. Since then, Lantz said he’s been scraping money together by making deliveries for Instacart and DoorDash. He said his apartment’s management company would not accept late payments, or the rental assistance Lantz had applied for and been granted.
Wednesday was Lantz’s fourth time in eviction court over the past year.
“I can’t be at peace,” Lantz said. “I feel like I’m on edge, like someone’s constantly threatening my wellbeing,”
LASC is one of several aid organizations with a table set up outside the convention center’s ballroom-turned-court room. Benson said tenants battling eviction often don’t know how to navigate a complicated legal system.
“I think the biggest misconception with the CDC (eviction) moratorium is that it stops evictions. It does not,” Benson said, explaining that the moratorium can put a pause on eviction judgments, but there’s no rule preventing a landlord from starting the eviction process.
“The mere filing of an eviction, even if it does get resolved, can be very damaging for a tenant when they want to move and find a new place to live because their new landlord can look and see that an eviction was filed against them,” Benson said.
While the moratorium could give tenants fighting eviction more leverage in their case, according to Benson, it has come into play for relatively few people in Franklin County.
“There have been nine stays in 2021, and there were less than 20 last year, out of several hundred applications,” Benson said.
Benson said the moratorium does not automatically apply to all tenants who are behind on their rent. The tenant must apply and qualify, using official paperwork from the CDC.
“(The application) is accessible here in Franklin County if you’re looking for it,” Benson said. “I don’t think it’s something that people necessarily know to look for.”
Typically, Benson said eviction cases can be settled through negotiation, avoiding the need for a judgment or a stay. She said many tenants aren’t aware of their options, so they pack up and leave their home to avoid court.
“Apply for that assistance, work with your landlord, try to avoid being here if possible, and if you do get court papers, come to court,” Benson said. “Talk to the attorneys, talk to the agencies that are here, talk to the magistrate. There’s a good chance that we can work something out.”
In Lantz’s case, an attorney from LASC helped him reach a deal with his landlord, who agreed to accept a rental assistance payment for April’s rent.
“There weren’t many other terms as part of our agreement, other than we’d pay rent on the first of every month,” Lantz said. “Otherwise, they would file an eviction again.”
According to Franklin County Municipal Court records through March 19, 2021, 12,064 evictions have been filed in the county since the pandemic began.