Despite a petition circulating seeking a halt to all local evictions amid concerns over the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19), Athens County Municipal Judge Todd Grace said Monday that he will continue with eviction hearings.
However, Grace emphasized in an email Monday that he will consider the hardship caused by the coronavirus situation when determining “move-out dates” if somebody is evicted.
“This means that people may have an eviction granted but be given until a later date to have to move from the property,” Grace said.
Athens County Municipal Court is the primary local court that deals with evictions; Grace said 16 total eviction cases are before the court between this past Monday and April 7.
A national conversation is under way about evictions and utility shut-offs amid the economic hardships caused by the coronavirus. A local petition garnered more than 800 signatures recently, seeking a moratorium on both evictions and utility shut-offs in Athens County.
Athens Mayor Steve Patterson confirmed Monday that the city will not shut off any city customers’ water services during the coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile, Lucy Schwallie, managing attorney with the Athens office of Southeastern Ohio Legal Services, sent a letter to Judge Grace Monday asking him to suspend eviction hearings while the public health emergency declared around the coronavirus continues in Ohio.
Schwallie said in a statement Monday that moving with eviction hearings now is harmful to the low-income population that SEOLS serves.
“Proceeding with the eviction hearings now forces our clients to make a dangerous choice in light of a public health crisis: come to court and risk being exposed to the virus, or stay home and risk a default judgment that will result in homelessness down the line,” Schwallie wrote.
She added that if eviction hearings are delayed, that could give SEOLS’ clients an opportunity to become current in rent again and avoid being evicted, especially if a stimulus package comes from the federal government or other benefits are provided by the state/federal governments.
Grace shared the following comment on The NEWS' Facebook page Tuesday evening:
"At times like this, it is important to recognize one of the primary strengths of our justice system is the ability of the court to review and rule on each case based on the facts of that case," Grace said. "A blanket moratorium would remove that individualized review. Holding an eviction hearing does not automatically mean that someone will be forced to move out.
"It is important that the court take the time to hold these hearings, to understand the facts of each situation, and to provide court-ordered relief as appropriate," he concluded.
Damon Krane, a local activist who ran unsuccessfully against Athens Mayor Patterson last election cycle, called that response “absurd” in a comment responding to Grace’s statement.
“Regardless of the outcome of any particular hearing, you personally, Judge Grace, are forcing people to make the choice between risking exposing themselves to the virus by leaving home to attend a hearing or increasing their chances of ending up homeless during a pandemic if they don't attend,” Krane said.
IN OTHER NEWS, Patterson confirmed Tuesday that the city of Athens will suspend enforcement of the 24-hour parking rule on Athens streets. Parking enforcement will continue to monitor the parking meters in uptown Athens and elsewhere, however.
Patterson also said Monday that he has been reaching out to property owners in the uptown Athens area to see if there can be “a level of relief” for business owners in that area who rent the spaces where they operate.
“There’s going to be financial strain on some of the commercial businesses, and so… I’m making several calls to some of the property owners to see if there can be some relief,” Patterson said.
In other news, Athens County Commissioner Chris Chmiel confirmed Monday that the county “has no plans” to shut off water for anyone in The Plains water and sewer service area (operated by Athens County).
Athens County Common Pleas Court Judge George McCarthy said Monday that as a judge he does hear some eviction cases “occasionally,” and said he would “certainly entertain such a request” (to potentially halt some eviction proceedings) under the circumstances, though he stopped short of saying he would be halting all eviction hearings.
“I would imagine that landlords will try to work with tenants under these novel and difficult circumstances to reach some sort of accommodation as well,” McCarthy said. “At a minimum I would certainly look at anything filed on a case-by-case basis should it become necessary.“
Columbia Gas, AEP Ohio and Le-Ax Water in Athens County have all reportedly said in statement over the last few weeks that they will not shut-off people's services due to non-payment, although customers will still need to pay for those services.