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Cleveland City Council passes 'pay-to-stay' eviction defense for tenants who come up with back rent

A close-up of a green eviction notice posted at a building in Cleveland
Nick Castele
Ideastream Public Media
An eviction notice posted at a Cleveland apartment building in 2020.

Cleveland City Council has passed a protection for tenants facing eviction commonly known as “pay-to-stay” legislation.

Under the ordinance, tenants can defend themselves against eviction proceedings in housing court by showing that they offered to pay back rent, reasonable late fees and court costs, but that the landlord refused to accept payment.

The protection is not automatic. Instead, it provides renters with what’s known as an “affirmative defense.” Tenants would still have to argue their case in court, or obtain an attorney to do so, leaving the final decision to a judge.

“Today, we took a big step toward housing justice and promoting equity in the city of Cleveland,” Mayor Justin Bibb said in a news release after council approved the measure at its regular meeting Wednesday. “And we won’t stop here.”

The Bibb administration and council plan an educational campaign to help tenants and landlords understand the ordinance, according to the news release.

“The reason for the ordinance is to try to mitigate our ongoing housing crisis that has been exacerbated by COVID-19, and also support tenants who want to tender late rent to avoid eviction and stay in their rental properties,” council attorney Jennifer O’Leary told the body at a hearing Tuesday morning.

The measure establishes in Cleveland's codes a defense that tenants are able to offer under state law, O’Leary said.

Council also amended the legislation to define “reasonable late fees” as $25 or 5% of one month’s rent, whichever is larger. Another amendment specifies that rental assistance — such as federal pandemic eviction relief dollars — is an acceptable form of payment.

That amendment could give tenants time to hold off an eviction while they wait for rental aid payments to come through, Molly Martin of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless told council. It can take about 45 days after an application, on average, for rental assistance to arrive, she said.

Many tenants do not show up for their eviction hearings, Martin said. But spreading the word about tenants’ rights could help more renters exercise those rights in court, she said.

“What renters don’t know can’t help them,” Martin said. “We think that actually having more tenants’ rights, that will educate renters about what rights are available to them in the court, would increase their likelihood to find the back rent to then pay it.”

Cleveland Building and Housing Director Sally Martin, who said about half of the city’s housing units are rentals, called the legislation “a shot across the bow to show that we are pro-tenants and protecting tenants’ rights.”

Such protections have passed in other Ohio cities, including Cincinnati, Dayton and Euclid. In July, a Hamilton County judge wrote that Cincinnati’s law did not conflict with state law, contradicting magistrates who had declined to enforce the protection.

Cleveland has sought in recent years to provide more assistance to renters. The city is helping to fund an initiative that provides legal representation to tenants facing eviction. The city’s housing court is opening computer kiosks that enable residents to attend virtual hearings without having to travel Downtown.

Updated: August 11, 2022 at 6:16 PM EDT
An earlier version of this story included Martin's comment to city council that the average wait time for emergency rental assistance was 60 days. Martin later clarified that the average wait time is in fact 45 days.
Updated: August 11, 2022 at 10:58 AM EDT
This story has been updated following Cleveland City Council's passage of the “pay-to-stay” legislation.
Nick Castele is a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media.