Trying to Prevent Evictions, One Door Knock at a Time

By Conor Morris

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 for their visit: 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.

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.

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 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, including the United Way of Greater Cleveland sending notices separate from the court about the Right to Counsel program. That program – which is available for anyone under 100 percent of the poverty line (for a family of three, that’s around $22,000 per year) 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.

Powaski and Falatic said some common themes have emerged after going to multiple door-to-door DSA 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.

Another commonality: Many don’t know that their hearings with the Housing Court are being heard virtually, Powaski said.

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 forms 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.

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.

Elsewhere, in places like Minneapolis, tenants have organized to achieve a rare feat: outright buying up the buildings they live in from their landlords. 

Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America. You can email him at cmorris@advance-ohio.com, 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 (partner’s name).