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The Athens City Building houses the mayor’s office, the Municipal Court and other city offices.

Athens County Municipal Court Judge Todd Grace has issued an order halting all in-person hearings and rescheduling them for May 1 or later in response to the “evolving COVID-19 pandemic.”

The order continues, stating that any hearings that can be resolved will be done by video conferencing or teleconferencing; persons under probation should report by phone to their probation officers; and persons who owe fines or costs can pay online at athenscountymunicipalcourtpayments.com, or by phone at 740-249-2108.

“If you cannot make your payment due to a COVID emergency, please contact the court and we will work with you,” the directive stated.

This has been interpreted by some to be a win for tenants. Damon Krane, owner of the Hot Potato Food Truck and housing justice activist, is among that group, stating that he believes this will halt eviction hearings at least until May.

“I’ve just been trying to organize public pressure to get our local elected officials to take some of the very reasonable measures to protect public health that so many of their counterparts took over a week ago,” Krane said on Tuesday. “Preventing people from having to break quarantine to go to court, and making it so people don’t end up homeless in the middle of a global pandemic — that’s just the first step. We don’t want people to be made homeless as soon as the crisis ends either, or to be hit with giant back-rent bills the minute they’re back at work.”

Krane said his goal in halting eviction hearings was to help prevent residents from breaking quarantine to go to work, court and more. This would also put stop any situation where a renter is made homeless during a global pandemic, Krane hopes. He said he believes renters should be made liable for rent “after the world has returned to normal.”

On March 19, Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, Maureen O’Connor, asked municipal courts to limit eviction and foreclosure proceedings. There is no statewide eviction moratorium in the state, however other states, such as North Carolina, New York and Maryland.

A petition to halt evictions in the county garnered over 900 signatures, calling on the Athens County Commissioners and Judge Grace to halt evictions and utility shutoffs.

“With the spread of coronavirus, school and business closures and a State of Emergency declared in Ohio, Athens County residents are experiencing loss of income,” the petition explains. “In the poorest county in Ohio, many people already live paycheck to paycheck. Our residents are facing evictions and utility shut offs due to this crisis, which will put us at increased risk of contracting the virus.”

Judge Grace said his order was not intended to just address evictions, and said those types of cases make up a small percentage of the cases he judges. He noted the Municipal Court had taken steps earlier to ensure health safety while continuing to hold hearings, including limiting the number of seats available in court to 15.

His concern when it comes to eviction cases lies in the complicated and strict regulations in the Ohio law surrounding evictions. For instance, there is a three day window to process an eviction filing, and another timeline for when hearings must take place.

“I can’t grant a moratorium,” he explained. “I’m not making this order in response to evictions or requests of citizens, my responsibility is to uphold the law. The state laws on evictions are very specific, so I could not grant what they wanted in the petition.”

Grace held his first hearing over Zoom, a video conferencing application, Tuesday morning, granting a change of plea.

“I cannot safely have hearings is what the medical professionals are telling me,” He said. “We were following the suggestions of the state health organization, but as it evolved, the medical recommendations have changed to not have any (hearings). That’s why I made the decision that I did, even thought it’s not consistent with the (evictions) statute.”

Lucy Schwallie, an attorney with Southeast Ohio Legal Services, said the organization is not able to speak for Judge Grace, but had a belief this order halts eviction hearings in the county.

“Our understanding is that the new Athens Municipal Court Order delays all hearings on currently pending evictions, as well as newly-filed evictions, until after May 1st,” SEOLS said in a provided statement. “We would encourage any low-income tenants who have questions about how their eviction may proceed, or whose landlords attempt illegal lock outs or utility shut offs, to call our office for assistance.”

Krane maintains that holding eviction hearings during the time period of the pandemic would be harmful to not just tenants, but homeowners and landlords as well.

“It doesn’t take a global pandemic for local elected officials to put landlord profits before public health and safety, that’s what they’re always doing,” Krane maintained. “It’s why even after city negligence contributed to the Carriage Hill Apartments (now Campus Heights) fire of 2017, the city still won’t hire enough rental housing inspectors to adequately enforce the housing code, and it’s why City Law Director Eliason won’t enforce the housing code either, as she ignores its stated penalties for code violations in order to let offending landlords off the hook.

“The only difference is that, this time around, our landlord-controlled local government wasn’t just putting tenants lives at risk by refusing to adequately regulate the rental market, it was putting everyone’s lives at risk by increasing everyone’s chance of contracting and spreading a potentially deadly virus,” he concluded.

Two separate bills have been introduced in the Ohio House to address the economic hardships stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, including one that aims to prevent evictions and foreclosures.

State Reps. David Leland (D-Columbus) and Jeffrey Crossman (D-Parma) introduced a bipartisan bill to put a stop to evictions and foreclosures for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis on Sunday, written in consultation with the Legal Aid Society of Columbus.

“Many people just lost their source of income, and they don’t know how they’re going to pay their rent or mortgage,” said Rep. Leland in a statement. “We need to make sure the people of Ohio are safe… at home.”

The legislation also gives Ohioans time to fix monetary defaults that occur during the emergency.

“We know that this crisis is going to cause financial hardships for many people in Ohio and we need to craft solutions to help people impacted by job and income loss. These are commonsense measures that will give people time to work out solutions to keep people in their homes,” said Rep. Crossman. “What we learned from the Great Recession is that failing to do enough to keep people in their homes will devastate communities across the state, and we need to do as much as possible to ensure that doesn’t happen again.”

The Ohio House of Representatives is scheduled to convene for the first time since the State of Emergency was declared this Tuesday, March 24.

Rep. Leland additionally introduced a bill Monday morning that would prevent utility shutoffs to residences during the pandemic. The bill would affect not just Public Utilities Commission-regulated utilities, but unregulated and submetering companies as well.

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