[In the player above, watch previous FOX 8 News coverage on Cleveland’s “Pay to Stay” ordinance, approved in August 2022.]

(WJW) — More than 17,000 evictions have been filed against Cleveland renters since March 2020.

Eviction filings are becoming more common in Northeast Ohio, following a brief reprieve during the pandemic. Though they can be complicated and lead to the courtroom, renters need to know their rights, and that there’s help available in their communities.

Read on more more on how the process works:

Evictions on the rise again

Eviction filings are seeing a resurgence nationwide, now that protections for tenants established during the COVID-19 pandemic have ended. In some cities, they’re 50% higher than the pre-pandemic average, The Associated Press reported in June.

Rent prices also saw sharp spikes that outpaced income growth over the last two years, increasing the burden of housing costs on Ohio’s lowest-income renters and creating more housing insecurity, said Marcus Roth, spokesperson for the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio.

“Rents are still going up. It’s not the crazy spikes we were seeing in late ’21 or ’22,” he said. “As far as the rental market, it has cooled off nationally, but … we’re still seeing steeper rent increases in the Midwest than lots of other parts of the country.

“It’s still a concern, and there’s been so much escalation of rental rates in the last couple of years, it’s really putting a lot more people on the edge.”

Cuyahoga County had the highest eviction filing rate in Northeast Ohio in 2022: nearly 7%, higher than the statewide average of 6.4%. Mahoning County’s eviction rate was also above the state average that year, at 6.6%.

Evictions in Cleveland

There have been more than 17,000 evictions filed in the Cleveland area since March 15, 2020, according to researchers at Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. That month, Cleveland’s housing court stopped processing non-emergency evictions for 60 days, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the months that followed, monthly eviction filings in the region were down between 67% and 30% of an average pre-pandemic year. But they began climbing again in September 2022, the data shows, and slightly surpassed the average in February 2023.

There have been more than 6,600 eviction filings in the Cleveland area in the past year, which is nearly 80% of the average.

This map shows eviction filings since Aug. 1, 2022, relative to the number of filings in an average pre-pandemic year. Census tracts colored in blue are below average, while tracts colored in red are above average. (Courtesy of The Eviction Lab at Princeton University)

The census tract with the most evictions filed between August 2022 and August 2023 was a 0.7-square-mile portion of the Euclid-Green neighborhood in northeast Cleveland, near Green Road and Groton Park, according to Eviction Lab. There were more than 200 eviction filings there that year. That was more than one-fifth of all renters living there, and an eviction rate nearly 200% higher than average, the data shows. The vast majority of those tenants were Black.

There, the median household income is $24,991, according to the 2020 Census, which is less than half of the state’s median income of $61,938. The median gross rent is $788 per month. More than half of the estimated 800 renting households there are putting at least 35% of their income toward rent, census data shows.

The census tract with the second-most eviction filings that year was a 0.8-square-mile portion of downtown Cleveland west from Playhouse Square to Irishtown Bend. There were more than 170 eviction filings there since Aug. 1, 2022 — a rate that’s about 80% higher than the average. Nearly two-thirds of those tenants were white.

There, the median gross rent was $1,373 per month, according to the 2020 Census. More than one-fifth of the nearly 2,500 renters there were spending at least 35% of their income on rent. The median household income is $57,723.

I got an eviction notice. What can I do?

Ohio landlords are able to evict tenants for failing to pay their full rent on time — even if they’re a day late or a dollar short — or for failing to follow the terms of their lease, according to the Legal Aid Society.

There aren’t any additional eviction protections for tenants using housing choice vouchers, according to Matthew Vincel, an attorney who works with the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland offering free legal services for tenants. But there are for folks living in housing subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.

First, landlords must serve the tenant a three-day notice to vacate the premises, either in person, by mail or at the unit itself. That doesn’t mean tenants have to move out in three days — only that the landlord intends to evict. In fact, tenants don’t have to leave the property until they’re ordered to by a court.

After the initial notice, landlords file with the courts what’s called a forcible entry and detainer. Tenants can respond by filing an answer. If they think the landlord is not following the law or lease agreement, they can also file a counterclaim.

Tenants are then served the court complaint, often by certified mail. The eviction hearing will happen in about two to three weeks after that, said Vincel.

Landlords can also file a “second cause of action” to recover unpaid rent or costs to repair damages to the rental unit. If tenants don’t respond with an answer to that filing in 28 days, the court will automatically rule in the landlord’s favor.

Tenants renting in Cleveland can get help with legal documents from the city housing court’s specialists. Most other suburban courts don’t offer the same kind of help, said Vincel.

It’s illegal for landlords to force tenants out by shutting off utilities or changing locks, or to seize the tenants’ possessions to recover unpaid rent. When landlords don’t follow proper eviction procedures, it’s called a “self-help” eviction. Tenants who find themselves in this position are urged to call the Legal Aid Society at 888-817-3777.

If you’ve received a Notice to Leave the Premises, here’s what you can do:

Talk to your landlord

See if you can negotiate an arrangement to pay back rent over time, recommends the nonprofit Ohio Legal Help. Or, if you can’t move out in three days, negotiate a set move-out date. Sometimes, eviction isn’t about unpaid rent. Perhaps the landlord has some other issue with your tenancy.

Try working out a solution to avoid getting taken to court, which can harm your credit and make it harder to rent in the future. Whatever the arrangement, be sure to get it in writing.

“If you get a three-day notice and you think you can be out in a week, it makes sense to reach out and negotiate,” said Vincel. “If you’re planning to leave anyway, reach out to your landlord. Let them know. You may be able to fend off an eviction.”

Get an attorney

If your landlord has already filed for eviction with the courts, you’ll need an attorney.

In Cleveland, free legal help is now a right for tenants facing eviction. Right to Counsel Cleveland, coordinated by the city, Legal Aid and the United Way, offers tenants who have at least one child or are living at or below the federal poverty level — which is $14,580 per year for a single tenant; $30,000 per year for a family of four — free representation in eviction proceedings and can also direct them toward resources to help pay for food, rent or utilities.

Can you pay your rent?

Under Cleveland’s new “Pay to Stay” ordinance approved last summer, city residents can avoid eviction if they can pay their rent, late fees and court costs before their eviction hearing.

Several other Northeast Ohio cities already have similar legislation, including: Akron, Lakewood, Cleveland Heights, Euclid, South Euclid, Maple Heights and Newburgh Heights. But Cleveland’s ordinance allows tenants to pay past due rent with emergency rental assistance vouchers.

Previously, landlords didn’t have to accept back rent, once they gave tenants a three-day notice.

Where to get help paying for utilities

Renters who are struggling to pay heating or cooling bills, have had utilities disconnected or received a disconnection notice, or need help paying down past-due bills may qualify for one of several different utility assistance programs, based on their situation.

Here’s a helpful brochure from The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland about what’s available:

Call 211

Find out about assistance programs in your county by calling your local community action agency at 211. Here’s a list of agencies in Ohio.

Most of the programs are based on income or household size. They only apply to renters with regulated utilities that both supply and deliver the home’s energy, like FirstEnergy and Dominion Energy.

Step Forward, Cuyahoga County’s local agency, coordinates several different programs assisting renters who need help paying winter heating or summer cooling bills, need air conditioners, fans or more fuel or who are in danger of having water or sewer service shut off. Renters can also enroll in income-based payment plans.

You need to make an appointment to take advantage of some of the assistance programs, or get paperwork in order like ID cards, proof of citizenship, current gas and electric bills and proof of income.

Try Legal Aid

The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland can help renters who need help getting a medical certification approved in order to stop a disconnection, issues with utility tampering or disputes over Cleveland Water bills that were denied or resolved unfavorably.

The society has offices in Cleveland, Elyria, Jefferson and Painesville. You can see if you’re eligible by calling 888-817-3777. You can also visit one of its regular advice clinics.