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Published: Wednesday, 3/21/2001

Rental disputes on the rise

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

In a Toledo courtroom, landlord Rebecca Coffey pursed her lips angrily.

Her renters, she said, had trashed her childhood home - allowing dog waste to pile up inside and lying about a broken furnace.

Her renter, Sonya Kimble, shook her head. Ms. Coffey, she countered, had neglected the six-bedroom Prescott Street home so badly that it threatened her five children's safety. “Now I'm dealing with rats coming into my home due to the [holes in] the foundation,” she complained.

It's the type of dispute being played out increasingly in Toledo Municipal Court, where numbers show that landlords and tenants are facing off more often than ever.

Eviction notices have been on a steady but steep climb, peaking last year at 6,476 cases.

Magistrate Susan Hartman Muska, who began in the tenant-landlord dispute field more than 25 years ago as an attorney, says she's “never, ever, ever” seen the housing court this busy. “It puts a strain everywhere,” she said.

In 1997, a total of 4,117 cases for eviction were filed. If trends continue - and judging from the filings in January and February, they will - the cases could top 7,000 this year, according to figures kept by the clerk's office. That would represent a 70 percent increase in a half-decade.

“I'm not surprised,” court Clerk Maggie Thurber said. “I think people are turning to courts more often and more quickly to help solve their problems.”

Most of Toledo's eviction cases are generated after the landlord accuses the tenant of missing rent payments. Those in the field speculate that the increase in cases is tied to the economy.

For one thing, there are probably more landlords these days. In the booming economy of the mid-and late-1990s, many people bought second and third properties as investments - some on land contract or at sheriff's foreclosure sales, housing court Judge C. Allen McConnell said.

“Many did not know what they were facing as landlords,” he said.

Tom Goodwin, a local attorney who used to represent tenants for the Toledo Legal Aid Society, agreed: “You just gave yourself a part-time job and it might require you to fix a toilet at 10 o'clock on a Saturday night.”

Additionally, landlords with only a property or two most likely have less capital behind them. A missing rent payment from the tenant means a bigger budget crunch for the landlord - exacerbating problems even further and sending the dispute to court more quickly, Mr. Goodwin said.

“They can't absorb daily losses like a larger landlord can,” Mr. Goodwin said.

Then there are the landlords who know a stronger economy means a plentiful supply of potential renters.

“Some of the landlords don't want to do the things that have to be done,” said Rene Owens, a housing counseling mediator at Catholic Charities. “They find it easier to evict a tenant and put someone else in there that won't complain.”

Of course, that works the other way too.

“In a good economy, there's insurance that there other renters out there,” Ms. Thurber noted. “Why put up with a bad renter?”

Whatever the reason, no break is likely soon from the increasing mound of eviction cases. Recent cutbacks in welfare benefits have placed an extra hardship on tenant families struggling to meet their rent, Magistrate Muska said.

“You have a $7 or $8 job, how do you come up with the $300 or so a month for rent?” she said. “It's an impossibility for some people.”

And ironically, the once white-hot economy that fueled the landlord business is cooling, cutting into income for middle-class families who traditionally were part of the labor force. That means there'll be no slowdown in housing court, Magistrate Muska said.

“This is only the beginning,” she said.



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