Eviction cases are heard at the Portage County Municipal Court’s Kent branch (pictured) and Ravenna branch. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

She survived domestic violence, but her landlord evicted her for the ‘nuisance’

Eviction cases are heard at the Portage County Municipal Court’s Kent branch (pictured) and Ravenna branch. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

She survived domestic violence, but her landlord evicted her for the ‘nuisance’

Portage County evictions continue despite a moratorium and an uptick in domestic violence crisis calls

She never thought she’d be able to have kids. Then, about four years ago, she and her boyfriend became pregnant. She’d never fallen in love like this before. But looking back, she missed the signs, she said. What began as subtle emotional abuse quickly mutated to physical violence.

He hit her multiple times. In October, he hit her “full force in my jaw,” said the woman, whom we are not identifying out of concern for her safety. He shattered her phone when she tried to call the police. She ran outside and urged one of the many onlooking neighbors to call the police, while her boyfriend locked himself inside their apartment with her son. The police arrested him, and her son came out safely.

“Next thing I know, there’s an eviction on my door,” she said.

The eviction notice came about two weeks after her boyfriend attacked her, claiming he had caused a nuisance at the apartment complex, a violation of the lease which they both shared. Her landlord did not respond to a request for comment.

Housing and intimate partner violence go hand-in-hand, experts say. One national study estimated that more than 80 percent of mothers experiencing homelessness have survived domestic violence. Another found that 84 percent of domestic violence shelter residents reported needing help finding housing.

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The pandemic is making it worse, according to reports nationwide. During the pandemic’s first three months, police departments in 14 large cities across the country reported a 7.5 percent increase in domestic violence-related calls.

Portage County’s only domestic violence shelter, Safer Futures, received more than 350 calls on its crisis line between March and June 2020. Need for the shelter’s services increased by 150 percent, said Donya Buchanan, a director at Safer Futures. Throughout 2020, they served 74 adults and 69 children, providing nearly 4,000 bed nights and 1,200 resources (like connections to food banks and legal assistance).

“Literally, it was like we had a crisis within a crisis,” Buchanan said. “We had the crisis of the pandemic, and then we had the crisis of the increase in violence that we saw here at Safer Futures.”

Based on cases she’s seen, Buchanan said landlords sometimes cite noise complaints when evicting survivors of domestic abuse.

“I think what oftentimes happens is that landlords find themselves in a position where it’s like, ‘I do not want this chaos in my place, at my house, at my apartment,’” she said. “And they make a choice that the thing to do is to evict them. When really, everything at that point, when you think about it, is being compounded, right? Because now I went from this violent relationship, and in addition to that, I’m now homeless.”

Also, survivors of domestic violence may be unduly evicted because they may be unaware of their legal protections under the Violence Against Women Act, said John Petit, the managing attorney at Community Legal Aid, a nonprofit law firm serving lower income communities throughout Northeast Ohio.

“We very rarely see tenants hiring attorneys, and so often their rights are not properly asserted,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services put into effect an eviction moratorium on Sept. 4. The order was meant to temporarily postpone residential evictions for nonpayment to prevent further spread of the virus. Stopping evictions, the order says, allows state and local officials to more easily implement stay-at-home orders. It also prevents financially struggling tenants from being forced out of their homes and into congregate living settings like homeless shelters where the virus is more difficult to contain. The moratorium is set to expire Jan. 31, though it has already been extended once.

Despite the moratorium, the Portage County Municipal Courts have pressed on with evictions more aggressively than other nearby municipalities, Petit said. Many courts, like Akron Municipal Court, for example, have most often blocked landlords from pursuing evictions of any kind if their tenant has submitted a moratorium declaration, he said.

The Kent and Ravenna Municipal Courts have, combined, heard 692 eviction cases in 2020 compared with 830 in 2019.

Eviction cases are heard at the Portage County Municipal Court’s Kent branch (pictured) and Ravenna branch. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

The Portage County courts have created an extra step in the eviction process by requiring what they call status hearings for moratorium declarations. The moratorium establishes criteria that tenants must meet in order to receive eviction protection. During those hearings, county magistrates evaluate the validity of a tenant’s declaration, requiring tenants to testify. Petit argued the declaration itself does not explicitly give courts power to do this.

“I don’t believe it is ever intended for the court to have to litigate,” he said. “The whole idea of the CDC order was keeping people out of court, keeping them housed. And if they make this declaration under penalty of perjury, then it should stand.”

The Ravenna Municipal Court branch has held 16 status hearings on the CDC moratorium and the Kent Municipal Court branch has held 17, according to a statement from Portage County judges Melissa Roubic, Mark Fankhauser and Kevin Poland to The Portager.

“The hearing is held to determine if the tenant’s CDC declaration filing is credible, accurate and truthful,” they wrote in the statement. “As judges, we have a duty to determine the credibility and veracity of all court filings, witness testimony and exhibits. In other words, the evidence that is presented to the courts in all cases.”

After being attacked by her partner and evicted, the woman was left with little money and a 2-year-old son to take care of. Scared and overwhelmed, she scrambled to find a new place for them to live, but with an eviction fresh on her record, she faced constant rejection.

Landlords were willing to work with her when she told them she’d pay with cash assistance, but she said they rudely turned her away when she mentioned the eviction, even when she explained to them the situation. She and her caseworker called dozens of residences to no avail.

“It’s very overwhelming,” she said. “After being told, ‘no, no, no, no,’ so many times, it’s like, there is no hope whatsoever. I don’t know. It really isn’t — it’s impossible. There’s nothing you can do.”

She and her caseworker even got in touch with local domestic violence shelters and Miller Community House, a homeless shelter in Kent, but they were all full. Days before she was to be evicted earlier this month, she finally found an apartment that would accept her, and her landlord postponed her eviction.

But getting out of an abusive relationship before a crisis like an eviction can be extremely difficult. Abusers sometimes take steps to ensure their partners rely on them, Buchanan said.

The first time the woman’s boyfriend attacked her, she left him for over a year, taking her son with her to her parents’ house. But her boyfriend provided the family’s money. She had only “food stamps and medical,” she said. And having grown up without knowing her own father, she wanted her son to know his. She moved back in with her boyfriend.

“I’ve never been as depressed as this time that I came back with him,” she said. “I would lay in bed for days and just stare at the wall. I couldn’t move. I didn’t care.”

On the day he punched her in the face, she spent the day suffering under a constant stream of expletive-laced verbal abuse. In the evening, she stood up to him. That’s when he began attacking her.

“I’m tired of him treating me like this. I’m tired of my son seeing this because he’s always right there in the middle watching, you know, me getting hit, or [the boyfriend] will be holding him while he’s hitting me. No, I’m not doing this. I’m not traumatizing my son.”

Now, in her new apartment, she said she just wants to be a good mother for her son.

“Just looking at this beautiful baby, like, he is so beautiful,” she said. “He’s got my chubby cheeks, and he’s so happy, like the happiest baby ever. And he’s just, he’s so strong, and I just sit there and think how amazing he is. And just knowing who his dad is. It’s very, very heartbreaking.”

Natalie Wolford contributed to this report.

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Michael Indriolo is a visual journalist based in Kent. He is a contributor at The Portager covering a range of topics, including local government and community.