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The Hallway, Not Courtroom, Is Where Things Really Get Done At This Eviction Court

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The latest CDC eviction moratorium is in effect for most of the country until early October. Yet Columbus, Ohio, is one place where eviction court proceedings have continued throughout the pandemic. NPR's Laurel Wamsley spent time in court there this week and heard what some renters are facing.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: On the 11th floor of the Franklin County Municipal Court, eviction hearings start each day with 40 cases at 8:30 and another 40 two hours later.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Abbeyhill v. Sonia McCall. Abbeyhill v. Juan Berney.

WAMSLEY: At the back of the room, swinging doors squeak as defendants, plaintiffs and their lawyers walk in and out. A ruling by the Sixth Circuit last month means that the new CDC order doesn't protect tenants in Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee. Here in Franklin County, Ohio, about 30 to 45 people a month are set out from their homes, according to the court. Municipal Court Administrative Judge Ted Barrows says the court works to connect tenants to legal representation.

TED BARROWS: We don't want to see people who are getting taken advantage of by a machine-driven court with a lawyer on one side and nobody on the other side.

WAMSLEY: Landlords win when tenants don't show. Tenants who do come to court have much better odds due to resources right outside the courtroom. Tables staffed with legal aid attorneys, mediators, social workers and a financial assistance nonprofit line the hallway to help tenants try to stay in their homes or at least not end up homeless.

One of the tenants here today is Keisha Harrison, a mother of two. She's meeting with an attorney from the Legal Aid Society of Columbus named Kaci Philpot, who goes over her case to see if she has any defenses that will work.

KACI PHILPOT: Your landlord is alleging that you owe over $10,000. Is that right?

KEISHA HARRISON: Yes.

PHILPOT: All right. So you told me about the conditions issues you have, how you haven't had a stove for two years, the ceiling's falling in, and you haven't been able to get ahold of anyone in the office since 2019. And you have pest issues.

WAMSLEY: Harrison has worked throughout the pandemic, first in an Amazon warehouse and now at a trash pickup service. But she hasn't been able to make ends meet. She'd like to move out at the end of September, but she may be forced out sooner.

PHILPOT: If we have to talk about a shorter move-out date, is that something that you're able to do? Are you able to move out sooner?

HARRISON: Financially, no, I'm not. My kids and I would be staying in the car, basically.

WAMSLEY: Philpot goes to see what she can work out with Harrison's landlord.

Further down the hall is Tashea Campbell, a mental health counselor with a 17-year-old son. She lost business during the pandemic, and her income is variable as she waits for insurance companies to approve her clients' claims.

TASHEA CAMPBELL: They were trying to evict me because I was late for the month of July and I was late for the month of August.

WAMSLEY: She has been approved for financial assistance, but her landlord is still threatening to evict her before the end of next month. And she's facing late fees.

CAMPBELL: It's $125 on, like, the 6th of the month and then another $125 on the 10th of the month.

WAMSLEY: She works with a mediator to ask the landlord's attorney to drop some of the fees, but the attorney says his client won't go for it. Campbell signs the cashier's check for $1,000 she brought with her, most of it going to fees instead of rent. She hopes rental assistance will arrive in time to head off eviction, but she's worried a judgment or filing on her record will make it harder to find a place to live in the future.

CAMPBELL: All I can do is what I can do. And I'm hopeful.

WAMSLEY: On Monday morning and the days after that, this hallway will fill again with tenants hoping for the best.

Laurel Wamsley, NPR News, Columbus.

(SOUNDBITE OF COCTEAU TWINS SONG, "LAZY CALM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.