We Are Here: Amanda Toole on Legal Aid and the Effects of Eviction

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We believe in the power of storytelling and the importance of investing in the future by sharing those stories – whether they are stories of successful community ventures or lessons learned from stories of things you wish happened just a little bit differently. These are the stories of communities working together for the common good. This article is part of “We Are Here: Housing Insecurity in Cincinnati,” a series produced by Women of Cincy and originally published at womenofcincy.org/housing.

Interview by Myra Morehart. Photography by Chelsie Walter. |Cincinnati is among the top 10 cities with the highest eviction rates in the country. From 2014 to 2017, Hamilton County had 49,757 eviction filings. Many tenants who face eviction do not have an attorney to represent them in court; however, their landlords often do. Only about 1 percent of eviction cases result in favor of the tenant. That’s what drives attorney Amanda Toole and the organization Legal Aid to do what they do. Amanda and her colleagues provide aid and legal representation to low-income tenants facing eviction. By providing legal assistance, Legal Aid hopes to increase the likelihood of tenants maintaining their housing.

During our conversation, Amanda gracefully explains the complex causes and effects of eviction. According to her, eviction is not as simple as a tenant not paying rent. There are unreasonable landlords, a lack of affordable housing, and a cyclical system of poverty that perpetuates housing instability.

I’d like to start off by hearing more about you and your path to becoming a lawyer.

I actually am from Cincinnati. I grew up here. I went to Walnut Hills High School. Everyone always said I had a mouth on me. I was raised by two public health nurses. I knew I just wanted to get out to the community. I wanted to serve the community, and Legal Aid was a perfect fit for me. My parents both worked for the City of Cincinnati as public health nurses in the clinics, and also were home health aides for the city. So, I got to see firsthand what poverty can do to a family and the struggles that they face every single day. So I knew that I wanted to work with our community and definitely assist low income families and individuals.

Can we hear a little bit more about how you ended up at Legal Aid and what your team does here?

I’ve been at Legal Aid since 2012. I’ve been an attorney since 2010. I volunteered in 2011, right after taking the bar, of course, during the recession, and the economy was still recovering. So, I volunteered and did some other work and then I was able to get a position here, which was really exciting. This is what I wanted.

Legal Aid is a nonprofit legal services firm. We have over 40 attorneys and we have paralegals, too. Our team comprises of paralegals, attorneys, and also administrative staff, and we provide legal services to not only Hamilton County, but the surrounding southwest counties, as well, like Butler County, Warren County, Highland County, Brown County, and Clermont. We provide landlord-tenant law assistance, special education, family law, custody, immigration law, and also benefits, which comprises of Social Security, bankruptcy, any issues with JFS, and that kind of legal issues. So, we just do what we need to do. We don’t have enough resources, unfortunately, and we can’t take every case that comes in. We definitely decline a lot of cases, but we try to get as many as possible.

How is it decided what cases are taken or focused on?

So, on the housing team, we try to focus on subsidized housing evictions and try to meet the needs of very low income. Subsidized housing encompasses a lot of types of housing, but it’s very difficult to get into subsidized housing, and it’s very easy to lose and then not be able to get back. So, we focus on stabilizing families and individuals in subsidized housing to make sure that they’re not evicted and that they can keep their subsidy. I’m not sure if you heard of the Section 8 waitlist at all? So the subsidized housing comprises basically three main ones:

  • There’s public housing, which is owned by the Housing Authority in Hamilton County – that’s Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority. They actually have the largest number of subsidized housing units in the county.
  • Then there’s Section 8 Project Based – which the term “project” has come from; that housing is actually owned by individuals and private companies, but they receive subsidies directly from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
  • And then there’s vouchers, which everyone really loves, except it’s very hard to place them. That’s called the Section 8 voucher, and an individual can place that voucher on private housing market and then the government will pay a subsidy towards that rent. So, everyone wants a voucher. The only problem with vouchers is that the government only pays a certain limit up to a week of rental housing, so you really can’t place that voucher in one of the communities that are very affluent – like Sycamore Township and stuff like that – because the subsidy doesn’t go that far. So unfortunately with vouchers, they’re concentrated in high poverty neighborhoods. The goal was that people place them all over so that your children could go to a better school and you could live in a better neighborhood, and really that has not been actualized because the government doesn’t get the funds to make that happen.

So, there’s three types of subsidized housing in our community. But there’s just not enough.

Why might someone lose access to the Section 8 program?

So you can be terminated from the Section 8 program. There’s a lot of federal rules and regulations with each program. And if a family member is alleged to have violated one of those rules – even like, as little as saying you let your cousin stay with you for a month because he had nowhere to go – you’re terminated from the program. The takeaway from subsidized housing is that the tenant usually pays 30 percent of their income towards rent and the government then pays the remainder. So it’s really helpful for low income families and individuals, because most families who are in poverty are paying well above 50 percent in their income towards rent, and that is just creating so much instability in their lives.

How does Cincinnati housing affordability compare to the rest of the country?

Unfortunately it’s like that in most of the country right now. But, Cincinnati has one of the highest child poverty rates, and so of course what happened when the economy was experiencing a recession… Rental housing just went up after that because many people lost their houses and banks weren’t giving out mortgages as frequently. So, affordable rental housing, you know, is very much needed. We just don’t have enough. There are about 100,000 families in Hamilton County that qualify for that housing. But only one in five actually can obtain subsidized housing in our community. So it’s kind of unbelievable. I don’t think it’s just Cincinnati that has a lack of affordable housing. I think that’s pretty much everywhere right now.

What are the most common types of cases you see at Legal Aid?

There’s so many. In Hamilton County, we have one of the highest rates of eviction filings. We try to maintain families in subsidized housing. It could be very minor violations that we don’t think rise to the level of being evicted. I just don’t think families should lose their housing for minor issues. I wish the landlord and the tenant could sit down together and just talk with each other about the situation. I think it can be resolved before court filings.

So, what I do is I represent a tenant after the eviction has been filed. And, I don’t know if you know this, but most landlords in eviction court have an attorney. Most tenants do not. In Hamilton County, about 1 percent of evictions are decided in favor of the tenant, and that’s pretty bad. And so once a tenant does receive an attorney, they have a higher chance of maintaining their housing by either winning the eviction or at least coming to some sort of settlement, with a more peaceful move-out date; without it being filed against them or on their record, because once the tenant has a lot of evictions on their record, you know, landlords look at that. It’s very hard to get back into housing once you have a lot of evictions.

What is the most common reason for someone to get evicted?

Of what I’ve seen, it’s not just about non-payment of rent. I’ve seen a lot of landlords who don’t accept the rent when they should have accepted it in a timely matter. There’s usually another underlying issue, which is why the eviction is going forward. A lot of our housing is very old, and a lot of it’s not up to code. So, let’s say a tenant calls the City Building Department or Health Department to report some bad condition issue like a water leak or no heat. I’ve seen a lot of issues where the landlord will retaliate against that tenant and file an eviction for non-payment of rent even though that landlord never went to the property to pick up the rent. It happens every day. In Ohio, unfortunately, we are not a pay-to-stay state. So if you missed one month of rent, you can be evicted. In other states they have these laws that are called pay-to-stay, which is basically if you can pay the rent – even if it’s late – you can stay there. You don’t have to be evicted.

There’s 12,000 eviction filings in Hamilton County each year alone. Almost everybody who is low income has been affected by an eviction. It’s pretty alarming, and unfortunately the middle class and upper class just don’t see what happens every day in eviction court or what happens to families once an eviction is filed and sent out. It has lasting effects. Families doubling up is extremely common. It’s when, you know, families are homeless and they have to double up with friends and family. And they do that because they have nowhere else to go. And with subsidized housing, there’s so many rules in place where you can’t really have a criminal record to get in. There’s so many rules placed on low income families to maintain subsidized housing and to get into housing. It is really hard.

How can we work towards a solution? What are other cities doing?

These cities have developed… Their court system has developed clinics where tenants are provided with an attorney before an eviction hearing, which I know has been very helpful, because once an attorney does get involved, the likelihood of that person getting evicted is much lower. I know that’s being done in California.

Another thing that could be done is to change the policy and laws in our state. More tenant protections could be in place; the pay-to-stay law could be enacted. That would be very helpful. And the third thing is: We need to invest in affordable, healthy housing. Our community should just be doing that.

Can you paint a picture of what it looks like when someone is served an eviction notice? What are the events that follow?

Sure. So you always have to be served with an eviction notice before filing eviction. It’s called “Notice to leave the premises,” and usually, it only has to be served on a tenant within three days before filing the eviction. And once that occurs, the landlord can go down to the Clerk of Courts and file that eviction. A hearing is usually set within two to three weeks after that eviction is filed, so, it’s pretty fast paced. The tenant is then served with papers by the sheriff’s office and through the mail of when they have that hearing date. Now, I’m not sure if you’ve ever been in eviction court in the Hamilton County Courthouse. I recommend anybody going there and just watching in the morning; it is in Room 121.

A hearing only lasts less than a minute. I mean, you basically have 30 seconds to tell your case, and you’re not going to get everything that you want to talk about out there. Most tenants are evicted unless the magistrate finds some reason that they think – you know, in 30 seconds – that this tennant shouldn’t be evicted. But the majority are evicted. It’s very sad. And once you’re evicted, you usually have seven days to move out – then you’re set out. And when you’re set out, what it looks like is the landlord will call the sheriff’s department to make sure that there can be a law enforcement officer at the property to keep the peace. And all your [stuff] is put on the street – everything that you have in your life.

That’s why the evictions and the aftermath of actions are just terrible. I mean, think about a family who’s evicted. They go live, maybe, with a family member. No belongings really to their name. If they do start over, it could be months to years down the road before they feel stable because they have no belongings; they just went through this process of being evicted from their housing; they could have lost their job. I mean, it’s just devastating. If you don’t have money for rent, you probably don’t have the money to move your belongings. So when that stuff  is set out, you lose that; you lose all your furniture; you lose all of your household items. You start out with nothing. So, it’s devastating, and I really think it’s devastating to the entire community, not just low-income individuals and families.

What do you think is the biggest misconception with people experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity?

I think a lot of people have misconceptions on how much rent is, and they believe that people can actually afford rent when in fact, rent is extremely high and wages have not increased in years to match that rise in rental costs. It’s just not possible. I think the misconception is that there’s enough housing to go around and just, “Why can’t you work? Why can’t you pay for your rent?” And really, it’s not possible.

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