Trying to Prevent Evictions One Door Knock at a Time
Anna Powaski and Chad Falatic walk down the cracked sidewalk of a street in the Kinsman neighborhood, toward a small rental home with a sagging porch and a U-Haul moving truck in the driveway. They strike up a conversation with two men on the porch.
Falatic and Powaski – both wearing masks – explain they’re with the Cleveland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and the reason why they’re there: The landlord has filed an eviction order.
“Are you going to be attending your hearing? You could potentially be hooked up with legal representation for free; either way, you should still probably attend the court date,” Falatic said.
“It’s virtual, right? So I’ll probably do it virtual,” one of the tenants says.
As they talk, Falatic and Powaski learn that the tenants are planning on moving out anyway. The men said they didn’t want to deal with their unresponsive landlord any more; the home’s previous owner had sold the home to a new buyer, and neither owner had fixed glaring issues like a broken front porch step.
Still, Powaski hands them several flyers, warning them that an eviction could make it difficult to find rental housing in the future. The flyers included how to access Cleveland’s Right to Counsel program, a leaflet on Cleveland and Cuyahoga County’s rental-assistance program, and other information on tenant rights in Ohio. It’s crucial information that could help keep renters in their homes despite the social and economic challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hundreds of doors
Cleveland DSA’s eviction-prevention door-knocking campaign has been happening biweekly for the past two months. As of mid-September, the group had used Cleveland Housing Court records to find, and knock on the doors of, 730 homes where eviction cases had been filed against the tenants.
The results have been hard to quantify so far. Sometimes, tenants aren’t home, or have already moved on. Other times, they’ve already made plans to move out, even though they haven’t attended their hearing yet to try to defend themselves.
Still, there are some success stories. Powaski said that on multiple occasions, tenants have told DSA members they weren’t even aware of an eviction before DSA members stopped by their homes. Plus, some people have been connected to Cleveland’s Right to Counsel program.
“We had a woman (who) qualified for a lawyer through the Right To Counsel program,” said Powaski, who is communications director for the Cleveland DSA. “They hooked her up with an attorney and she attended her hearing via Zoom. She said her landlord got caught lying about her rent payment. She was allowed to stay in the property, and she has until December to pay back the rent for July that she owes.”
The DSA outreach has been very helpful in getting the word out about the Right to Counsel program, said Melanie Shakarian, director of communications for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland. It’s especially important because, despite the federal moratorium on evictions announced in September, evictions are still happening (see related story).
Shakarian said the DSA’s work is one part of a multi-pronged approach to get this information out to tenants.
“It’s one really important element of a totality of outreach that tenants need to get,” Shakarian explained. “Legally, they get the summons. Separately, they get a letter from United Way to follow up on the summons, then, the DSA outreach. There’s other communications we’re doing through the public libraries, through the Food Bank, through social media and other paid advertisements.”
Legal Aid has handled about 150 cases that qualified under the Right to Counsel ordinance since June, Shakarian said. Since Cleveland Housing Court went back into session in June, a total of about 1,700 evictions have been filed in the court, according to records analyzed by the Eviction Lab project housed at Princeton University.
Cleveland’s Right to Counsel program – which is available for anyone under 100% of the poverty line with a child in the house – could provide critical help. A 2015 study from the Institute for Research on Poverty found that an estimated 90% of landlords have legal representation in eviction cases, while only 10% of tenants do.
"Nobody talks to these people face to face. They just get sent papers with a ton of small text information in it. When you're really exhausted and beaten down...that method of delivery is not good enough."
Meanwhile, Judge W. Moná Scott said the Housing Court recently started asking lawyers from the Legal Aid Society to be present during eviction hearings to ensure that if a tenant does qualify for Right to Counsel, they get representation they need (the lawyers can help them get connected to rental assistance money, too).
Despite the assistance, evictions are still being granted. In September, Scott said 344 eviction cases were filed, with 180 granted; in August, 437 were filed and 164 were granted. At the same time, plenty of cases did get resolved through the court’s mediation program, (almost 80 in August, for example). Typically, tenants agree to move out in those situations while the landlord agrees to drop the case.
Revelations from visiting tenants’ homes
Powaski and Falatic said some common themes have emerged for the Cleveland DSA after going to multiple door-to-door events over the last few months.
Often, these people are essential workers with children, struggling to pay their rent in homes where landlords have long ignored their obligations to fix problems, Falatic said.
“Nobody talks to these people face to face,” Falatic said. “They just get sent papers with a ton of small text information in it. When you’re really exhausted and beaten down… that method of delivery is not good enough.”
Judge Scott said she noticed a similar trend in her court, with many tenants simply not showing up to court. She said she feels there’s a “communication gap,” with tenants not knowing about the assistance available to them.
Another commonality: Many don’t know that their hearings with the Housing Court are being heard virtually, Powaski said.
Powaski said the DSA Cleveland group acknowledges that they’re not going to get to every eviction case. The DSA group only has so many members and volunteers, plus, some might worry about potentially spreading COVID-19 while meeting people in-person. However, canvassing is a safe practice so long as everyone is staying distant and wearing masks, said Suzanne Hrusch, an environmental sanitarian at the Cuyahoga County Board of health.
Since the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium was enacted on September 1, the DSA has begun taking the CDC eviction prevention form to tenants and even helping them fill it out. That’s important because, Powaski said, tenants they talk to are almost “never” aware of it in the first place. The forms are required for eviction relief.
Frank Hawkins was one of the tenants Falatic and Powaski spoke to during one of their door-to-door campaigns in late August, heading through the Kinsman and Lee-Miles neighborhoods.
Hawkins said he was planning on moving out of his rental housing after his landlord filed an eviction notice against him for non-payment of rent. That’s after he said the property manager refused to renew his lease earlier this year, and refused to pay him for work he did to fix issues in the home. This is while he’s been working long hours at a rubber factory throughout the pandemic.
“I just think they’re trying to push me around,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins said he checked and found he wasn’t eligible for Cleveland’s right to counsel program because he doesn’t have a child in the home. Powaski recommended he still call the Legal Aid Society to get advice on his situation, noting that the DSA couldn’t provide legal advice.
“Even if you don’t get a lawyer, these are some good tips on how to represent yourself,” Powaski said, handing over another flyer on landlord-tenant law.
A few days after the DSA members stopped by, Hawkins represented himself at his virtual eviction hearing, although his efforts were hampered by a spotty internet connection. Ultimately, his landlord’s attorney agreed to drop the case if Hawkins moved.
Several days later, Hawkins moved out of Cleveland altogether. While he wasn’t happy with not being able to defend himself, or having to move so quickly, he was glad the DSA stopped by his home. He said it gave him a chance to feel heard by somebody.
Abigail Staudt, managing attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, said the number of eviction filings in Housing Court represents only a portion of the overall problem of housing instability in Cleveland.
Even outside of formal eviction proceedings, some landlords may be resorting to so-called “self help evictions,” where they illegally change the locks of a rental home, or shut off the utilities in the home, Staudt said. She said her office has only helped with a few of those cases since March, but she is sure more are flying under the radar.
Changing the status quo?
Over in Washington D.C., the Metro D.C. DSA chapter has previously tried a similar door-to-door tactic to try to educate tenants on their rights and prevent evictions. They even have a guide on how to do it.
Evan Spath, an organizer with that group’s “Stomp out Slumlords” campaign, said at the height of its door-to-door canvasses, his group was doing 300-500 door knocks a month, with about one-third of those resulting in conversations with tenants. Tenants who spoke with DSA were 80 percent more likely to show up in court, he said.
“We found that generally, the problem wasn’t that they were getting evicted (after showing up in court),” Spath said. “A lot of them would work out a payment plan with the landlord, go into debt, or just float around to find other properties. It’s just this sort of unsustainable status quo in place of evictions.”
Once the pandemic hit, Spath said his group has mostly pivoted away from that tactic, fearing it would put tenants or organizers at risk of contracting COVID-19. In addition, D.C. has a continuing local moratorium on evictions in place.
Instead, Spath said his group has been working with the D.C. Tenants Union to “organize” individual apartment buildings to fight for better living conditions, with tenants using the threat of rent strikes and holding their rent in escrow until the landlords assent to make needed repairs. The group has managed to organize, or is in the process of organizing, 23 buildings so far.
Elsewhere, in places like Minneapolis, tenants have organized to achieve a rare feat: outright buying up the buildings they live in from their landlords.
Back in Cleveland, local DSA chapter members Powaski and Falatic said they hope their door-to-door campaign is a way to build “working class power” in Cleveland.
“This is the only option we as Americans have left because in a lot of ways, our representatives have failed us,” Falatic said.
There’s one thing that the DSA members and Staudt all agreed on in separate interviews: Additional aid from state or federal government needs to be made available to renters (or to their landlords).
“We’re going on six months of no rent paid for many of them (landlords),” Staudt said. “They’ve got mortgages. They’ve got bills to pay, and many of them own just a couple of properties.”
For Powaski and Falatic, these conversations with tenants in hard-off areas of the city has them thinking larger. Falatic hopes some of the people they talk to end up joining the DSA, although anyone can volunteer to help out with the DSA canvassing. Powaski said inviting friends along on the door-to-door campaign has opened their eyes.
“When thinking about a citywide tenants union, about rent striking, about working against a ruling class… this totally changes their perspective and gets them wanting to be more involved,” Powaski said.
Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find him on Twitter. This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including WKSU.