For tenants receiving rental assistance, eviction still possible

NBC4 Investigates

COLUMBUS (WCMH) — For some Franklin County tenants receiving rental assistance, the stress of possible eviction still lingers.

NBC4 Investigates has learned from the non-profit that manages a largely taxpayer-funded, multimillion-dollar rental assistance program that some landlords have attempted to oust tenants, despite receiving assistance payments.

IMPACT Community Action has helped thousands of tenants remain in their homes throughout the COVID-19 pandemic through its rental assistance program that receives money from the federal government.

One of those tenants is Katrina Strong, a single mother who quit her trucking job to stay home with her three youngest children when schools closed last year. Because Strong chose a full-time virtual option though Columbus City Schools, her children are committed to learning online for the rest of the school year.

“Even though we’re going through all of this and they may be stressed because they’re not in school, they’re happy we’re all together,” Strong said. “(But) with them being out of school and me not being able to go to work, that’s what’s caused me to not be able to bring in the income that I used to bring in.”

IMPACT approved Strong for rental assistance payments, which are coordinated between the organization and the landlord.

After the check was sent, Strong received an eviction notice.

“I had to reach out to IMPACT and say, ‘Look, I don’t have nowhere to go. Me and the kids will be living in our vehicle if we get kicked out of this house,'” Strong said.

Latisha Chastang, IMPACT’s Director of Emergency Services, said in the vast majority of cases, landlords are willing to work with the organization in order to keep families housed. A handful of cases, Chastang said, are more complicated.

“So I will say that it is a mixture of different situations,” Chastang said. “(Some landlords) see this as a road to get that tenant out due to non-payment.”

According to Chastang, a number of circumstances could lead a landlord to evict a tenant rather than accept rental assistance payments, such as a prior bad relationship with the tenant.

In few cases, however, Chastang confirmed that landlords attempted to evict tenants after cashing rental assistance checks from IMPACT.

“We have had landlords that that have tried or made — have made attempts to — to defraud the agency,” Chastang said.

In order to hold landlords accountable, IMPACT solidifies agreements directly with landlords before payments are made. The organization also has an internal audit team, the ability to track payments, and a computer system that can detect potential fraud. Chastang said the organization also maintains a list of names of untrustworthy landlords.

“Not a big list, so that’s a good thing,” Chastang said. “We keep that list with our finance department. So before there’s even a check that goes out, we do our due diligence to verify if they happen to be on that list.”

Sometimes, Chastang said landlords do not receive their check.

“The mail has been a huge challenge,” Chastang said, adding that landlords are encouraged to opt for an electronic check transfer or pick up the payment in person.

In Strong’s case, IMPACT followed up with her landlord, who essentially chalked things up to a miscommunication about the months covered by the rental assistance. Strong and her children were ultimately allowed to stay in their home for at least another 30 days.

“It took a lot of toll on me,” Strong said. “There were times I just had to remove myself from the situation so that my children don’t see what I’m going through.”

To spare families from similar stress, Columbus City Councilmember Shayla Favor spearheaded the Housing for All legislative package, which passed in March. The package includes an ordinance requiring landlords to provide tenants with a written receipt for rent payments.

“We see that as a benefit for folks — if they do find themselves in eviction court, it becomes a he-said/she-said, if you will,” Favor said.

Another ordinance in the package allow tenants to choose to pay their security deposit for a new rental upfront, or in installments over three or six months. A third ordinance prohibits landlords from denying a tenant housing based on their source of income.

Favor said the issues that these ordinances address disproportionately affect single parents and people of color.

“I by no means am suggesting that these three pieces of legislation will cure our problems,” Favor said. “But they are starting the right direction and they are indicative of my resolve to tackle this crisis head-on.”

The ordinances take effect July 1.

“That’s intentional, because we are not looking to be punitive to the landlord community,” Favor said. “We want to make sure that we are doing our due diligence to educate our landlords and our tenants on these changes.”

Strong believes the receipt policy would have likely led to an easier, less stressful solution to her problem.

Favor said she appreciates the work many landlords have done with the city and its partners to keep people housed during the pandemic.

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