rhino!UP News August 2021

Application morphs into a lease? rhino!UP for August 1, 2021

Tenant X was shocked to learn that the rental application that she signed was actually a 12 month lease. Despite the fact that she didn't earn enough to "qualify" for the unit, she was approved and then stuck with a monthly payment far beyond her ability to pay. Deceptive? Maybe, but the first rule of renting is understanding what you are signing. A verbal assurance can't modify a written agreement...even if you can prove you were deceived.

Many tenants in Ohio believe they are protected from predatory rental practices by the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act (CSPA). However, a landmark court decision in 1995, Heritage Hills, Ltd. v. Deacon, ruled that the protections in the CSPA do not apply to pure rental transactions. Neither the Ohio Attorney General nor the Ohio Consumers Counsel have jurisdiction for cases of misrepresentation in renting. When Mike DeWine was Ohio Attorney General, in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession, his office publicized the risk of rental scams, but it's not clear that this effort was more than publicity or that the campaign against rent scams was continued under OAG Yost.

Tenants in Ohio may find some help from Federal agencies when it comes to consumer protections in the homesearch process. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) which has focused on tenant screening issues may provide some protections, but their record of performance over the past 10 years is spotty.

Rather than relying on government, prospective tenants should understand the terms when renting. Here are some techniques that could save a prospective tenant from being misused in the rental process.

1. Get a copy of any documents that you are being asked to sign. Take the copy home, review it carefully, and ask a third party to explain any provisions that you don't understand.

  • Don't rely on the owner or agent to explain the documents. They are looking out for the owner's interests, not yours.

  • If the owner's representative won't give you copies of the documents, take their reluctance as a sign you want to look elsewhere.

2. Get a signed and dated written receipt for any funds that you pay in the application process.

3. Understand the difference between a fee, a deposit, and a security deposit.

  • Fees are non refundable. An application fee and a credit check fee are extra charges.

  • Deposits *should be* refundable under certain conditions. Make sure that the terms of the deposit are provided in writing. A deposit "to hold the unit," for example, may not be refundable if you turn out to be qualified to rent, but change your mind about the unit.

  • Security deposits are refundable under the Ohio Landlord Tenant Law id you enter into a rental agreement.

      • Security Deposit Insurance is not a security deposit. SD Insurance is not refundable, and may be a debt trap.

      • Renters insurance protects your property from fire and theft. Some leases make renters insurance, but where you buy your renters insurance should be a tenant's choice. Shop around.

4. Look at the unit that you are planning to occupy, not a model unit. Renting sight unseen is increasingly common. . Earlier this year, RHINO encountered a Columbus tenant who loved the "model unit" only to discover, too late, that the apartment she actually rented was located next to an industrial smoke stack that triggered her asthma. If the actual unit is not ready to occupy, get a written statement of what will be done (e.g. new carpet, fresh paint, new appliances) to make the unit ready before your move in date.

"Advocating" at the polls this year. rhinoUP for August 8, 2021.

Community organizations often think of electoral work as a 2nd class practice that is based on egoism instead of idealism. Despite the Obama model, there are thousands of stories of organizers who moved over to the dark side in support of their personal advancement. RHINO suggests that community organizations should eschew this elitism!

Working the polls is one of the best ways for organizers to learn the tricks of the trade. And local off year elections provide some of the best opportunities to see how a campaign really works. From door knocking to event management, electoral campaigns can teach a newbie the basic techniques of community organizing.

In the classic community organizing model, organizers are underpaid servants of the people. Politicians by contrast are seen as self-inflating egos. But experience exchange between community and political organizing is an ongoing process. Just yesterday, Politico Playbook noted: "Progressives see a takeaway: They can win battles in Congress using the tactics they picked up as activists. With policy victories, they can make themselves politically palatable such that they can win primaries." FDR's admonition to his grassroots supporters "Go out and make me do it" ring truer than ever in the Biden era. And it's not just leftists organizers who feel this tension between idealists and politicians. The grassroots movements of the right have experienced the agony of watching a favorite son become a pragmatist.

More recently, some grassroots organizations have learned the techniques have political campaigning and have used initiative petitions to promote their causes. This year's Affordable Housing Initiative in Cincinnati or the 2019 Lead Safe Housing Initiative in Cleveland are both good examples of using political practice to promote community supported programs that the real politicians might never advocate without some grassroots pressure.

Why the reluctance to engage?

  1. Most community based organizations are tax exempt organizations that rely on donations and (wait for it) government grants for their survival. Besides legal prohibitions against using tax exempt dollars for electoral work, there's a risk of ruffling the feathers of the power structure. Working through a coalition or a PAC can reduce exposure to backlash.

  2. After years of practice at balancing the interests of the funding elites with the interests of their "clients," many nonprofit organizations have lost their taste for conflict strategies. And electoral means conflict!

  3. A final barrier to community organizations engaging in political organizing is the overall distain for electoral politics...especially at the grassroots level. Generations of low income activists have watched as social power and wealth has shifted from the poor to the middle and upper classes. For many, the Fannie Lewis principle that the rich have the money and the poor have the votes seems ineffective resulting in apathy or anarchy.

RHINO says look again at electoral organizing. Learning the political game at the grassroots level gives community based organizations another tool to accomplish their missions. If your staff and members volunteer in local campaigns, they will learn the ropes and share their concerns with other activists. Doing voter registration, education and mobilization is legal under IRS rules. Voter engagement enhances your organization's credibility among the political class, trains your staff for free, and it's good for democracy. Even if your side loses, becoming a "player" in the political ecosystem builds your credibility when you make demands on a successful candidate who's in office.

Whammy Zammie! Republican "populists" embrace homeownership by attacking Wall Street Landlords. Is this realignment?

Venture capitalist and former Hillbilly Elegist, J.D. Vance has re-cast himself into the mold of Trumpist populism in his effort to grab the Senatorial nomination from the Ohio Republican establishment. Imagine the image contortions that were required when Vance attacked "Wall Street Landlords" for buying up single family homes and, in the process, blocking the aspirations of first time homebuyers. In risking a gymnastic twistie, Vance is seeking to one-up Gold Medalist Donald Trump, the real estate mogul who was champion of the little guy in 2016.

Bloomberg News has a long analysis of this new phenomenon of Republican Populism. "Now Vance is signaling he’ll highlight the issue as he tries to stand out in the large cast of Republicans seeking to replace Senator Rob Portman in a state Trump won twice by 8 percentage points. 'We’ll lose our republic if the middle class is turned into a permanent renter class,' Vance said in a statement. 'When you don’t have any ownership stake, you lose your voice.' Other Republicans can be expected to jump on the issue if there’s more than just anecdotal evidence it’s affecting the market, according to Republican pollster Whit Ayres." In a different Bloomberg article, readers learn that the Vance campaign is being bankrolled by conservative tech zillionaire Peter Thiel and the Mercer family who engineered the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal in support of the candidacy of Donald Trump.

Digging the ironies here?

Meanwhile, FIRED1 lobby pushes back against Biden.

Since the Clintons, Wall Streeters have been strong supporters of Democratic administrations, which routinely delivered strong economic stimulus and tax breaks for the investor class. So it's a shock when the National Association of Realtors (NAR) flips out at the Biden administration's flip-flop extension of the CDC Moratorium.

Here's what happened. On August 7th, Politico reported that Congressional efforts to renew the moratorium were stymied by intense lobbying by the NAR which got a dozen moderate Dems to prevent Speaker Pelosi from bringing the issue to the floor of the House. That's when Biden acted unilaterally, as Trump had done in September of 2020. "Biden’s move to reinstate a federal eviction moratorium Tuesday after letting it lapse days earlier marked a huge political loss for the National Association of Realtors and its housing industry allies, who each year shower candidates in both parties with millions of dollars in contributions and often get their way in big policy fights." 1FIRED is the Finance, Investor, Real Estate and Developer lobby.

Is this another realignment? We'll know more as the Senate goes after tax increases on investor incomes.

Renters and housing advocates are in the middle.

Whether Republicans become born-again populists or the FIRED lobby is driven into the arms of free market Republicans, rental housing advocates will do well to focus on the normal eviction crisis that won't go away when the rental assistance and moratoriums finally end. Earlier this year rhino!UP recommended pre-thinking the next eviction crisis now instead of fighting last year's battles.

More Footnotes from today's rhino!UP story

  1. Ironic that a key source for this story is Bloomberg News. Michael Bloomberg, media tycoon, was a Democratic candidate in 2020 and a Republican mayor of New York City. How's that for realignment and wallstreet landlords?

  2. Vance's other cockamamie issue is the idea that "the childless left" hates babies. Try selling this idea on the campaign trail after the enactment of the 2021 Child Tax Credit. Huh?

  3. If you are of Appalachian roots, is RHINO missing the real story? To those who believe the term "hillbilly" is offensive I apologize, but as a self - described hillbilly, I wear the term as a badge of honor.

  4. This just in. August 13, 2021, Vice News. Zillow, Other Tech Firms Are in an ‘Arms Race’ To Buy Up American Homes. "High-tech middlemen like Opendoor and Zillow Offers, Zillow’s home-buying platform, first inserted themselves into the housing scene a few years ago, armed with cheap money and hoping to profit off the bedrock of American middle-class wealth. iBuyers target mid-level homes that are in decent condition, offer to buy the house with cash, and make the selling and moving process quick and convenient. They then make a few repairs and quickly put it back on the market, ideally at a higher rate. In exchange, they charge the homeseller a fee that varies according to a variety of factors"

Eviction now and moving on. rhino!UP for August 29, 2021

The expected SCOTUS decision against the CDC eviction moratorium is now the law. While national and state advocates are pushing harder than ever to make Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) the solution, the fact is that ERA has already failed. The failure is likely due to incompetent or malignant local delivery systems, assistance hesitancy by tenants, and landlord resistance. PreThinking the next eviction crisis will require a careful analysis.

For many of our neighbors, the question is what can tenants and landlords do now to salvage some semblance of housing stability. There's hope that tenants can survive by lawyering up.

  • Equity defenses! One of the things that a lawyer can do in eviction court is raise "equity" defenses. Providing evidence of the tenant's efforts to secure rental assistance and/or the landlord's refusal to accept rental assistance payments can buy some time for tenants.

  • Pay to Stay defenses (P2S). It is amazing how local P2S ordinances have expanded to give tenants an opportunity to negotiate payments of past due rent. COHHIO's informal study of P2S protections shows that many courts are using P2S as a way to "institutionalize" equity defenses. Kudos to all the local advocates (MattC, DebraL, ReemS, MollyM...and others) for your efforts to enact local protections.

Local officials are beginning to think about what next step policies can protect their renter households who are simply unable to keep up with rent increases stimulated by the Housing Bubble 2022. One answer may be to enact "Oregon style rent caps," which protect renters from rent increases...even if they are on month-to-month agreements. "The new law caps rent increases at seven percent a year. Most landlords now also have to give three months' notice and pay a tenant a month's rent to evict them without cause." Before dismissing this "socialist" solution, local officials should consider that Portland, Maine (not a hotbed of progressivism) has enacted a similar ordinance.

Even with current or prospective tenant protections, tenants will be called upon to sharpen up their homesearch skills.

Step 1: Get past the initial screening. Many landlords use the application process to screen out prospective tenants.

  • A credit check with an eviction filing is the Scarlet E on your application. Prospective landlords might give consideration to homeseekers if their eviction for back rent during an economic recession. Maybe you settled in court, but the filing will still be on your record.

  • Then too, office staff are often trained to look for reasons to discourage applicants. A case in Cleveland involved a site manager who did a verbal "screening" of prospective tenants before giving them an application form. Many were told "don't bother to fill out an application." No application, no opportunity to appeal.

Step 2: Appeal every denial.

  • A denial based on a credit report can be appealed to the Federal Trade Commission. Ask for an adverse action notice. In a case in SE Ohio a prospective tenant was denied an apartment because of a drug offense. When he was able to show the upper managers that he had a minor misdemeanor and suspended sentence as a result of driving a car in which a passenger had a marijuana joint, he was accepted into the unit.

  • Everybody has a boss. A decision made by a low level employee may be arbitrary or even discriminatory. A Cleveland tenant was denied a unit based on an unpaid tax lien even though he had a stellar record as a rent payer under the same management company! Turns out that, because of the tenant's disability, he used a fiscal agent to pay his bills. The agent bungled the tax payment. Tenant requested a reasonable accommodation based on his disability.

Activists can play a role in mitigating the ongoing eviction crisis beyond simply arguing for more and faster rental assistance.

  • The Cleveland Housing Organizing Project (CHOP) has an on-going project to canvass households which are scheduled for evictions. CHOP volunteers inform the tenants about how to challenge evictions.

  • Activists can also target mass evictors who are rushing to court. A new study by the Eviction Lab suggests that a relatively small number of big operators are flooding some courts with evictions. By naming and shaming or targeting outreach their tenants, activists may slow their rush to judgement.

  • Finally, activists can promote pre-trial mediation to permit equitable non-judicial solutions. Disputes that can be resolved before an eviction is filed saves money for the landlord and saves the tenant from credit record hassles.

Nuance has been a casualty of the media coverage of the Moratorium/Rental Assistance Crisis. The Columbus Dispatch article Landlords say they are not all `big bad ugly people who just want money' goes to some length to illuminate the people on the landlord side of the controversy cross fire. Media are prone to feature the worst case landlords, like Gary Zaremba--forced by nonpaying tenants to sell 40 of his Ohio properties to other investors. He still owns another 100 rental properties, poor baby but he was forced by his tenants to give up tax free rent revenue in exchange for tax free capital gains! At the same time, not all tenants are helpless victims.

Sidestepping the urge to "blame" and working between these two extremes, landlords and tenants can often find "housing stability" for both.