Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Millions of Dollars in Rental Assistance Money Still Available

A central Ohio court and a local organization are a model for working together to get millions of dollars to people facing eviction and landlords in a financial bind. It’s a model that may help other courts statewide.

Circleville Municipal Court and the Pickaway County Community Action Organization (PICCA) are collaborating to identify and assist people facing eviction due to economic hardships from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Circleville Municipal Judge Elisa Peters, magistrate Alan Sedlak, and PICCA representatives Becky Hammond and Nick Pruitt met late in the summer of 2021 after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lifted a nationwide eviction moratorium. The CDC decision followed a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the moratorium was unconstitutional, meaning that eviction cases could no longer be put on hold.

“All of a sudden, we knew as an agency it was about to get real for people,” said Pruitt, PICCA’s community services block grant and energy director.

With many citizens unaware of the social services available to them, the court and PICCA created a process to locate people in need of financial aid who didn’t know they were eligible for government funds or how to obtain them.

During the moratorium, the court referred people to PICCA. When the eviction ban expired, the court started contacting Pruitt directly with a list of people who might qualify for emergency rental assistance funds. He would then become part of the dialogue between the tenant and landlord, helping to resolve outstanding debts and, when possible, paying rent to landlords months in advance. If there were no other issues related to the eviction claim, the case would be dismissed. As an added layer of assurance, Pruitt is at the municipal court every Friday afternoon when Sedlak hears the week’s eviction cases to help people he does not know about in advance.

“It’s kept tenants in their home. It’s gotten money to the landlord,” Sedlak said. “The landlords have been very cooperative, and I think they look at it as a win-win.”

Pruitt, who also is a pastor, knows all about life’s adjustments during the pandemic. He started with PICCA right before Gov. Mike DeWine issued a stay-at-home order in March 2020. That’s when the Pickaway County native walked away from a 21-year corporate career because he wanted to do more for others. That desire to reach as many people as possible is what connected him with the court.

The streamlined process with the court allows the community partners to stay on top of their caseloads. It also helps ensure that PICCA can use all its federal funds for COVID-related setbacks before the program expires at the end of the year. The joint effort is part of why PICCA was recognized by the White House two weeks ago as one of the nation’s most successful local agencies at providing funds, services, and resources during the pandemic.

PICCA is among 47 community action agencies in Ohio that received multiple waves of federal funding over the past two years, most notably through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in 2020 and the Coronavirus Response and Consolidated Appropriations Act in 2021. To date, PICCA has distributed more than $1.2 million in federal funds for rental and utility assistance to nearly 2,000 people in Pickaway County during COVID. Many of those cases were discovered through filings with the court.

“We’re all here for the community,” said Pruitt. “We all want our communities to be better, and we’ve all got different roles to play in that.”

The Ohio Department of Development, the state agency responsible for appropriating federal funds to community action agencies, says more than $280 million of the $462 million in federal housing relief allocated to the state was still available as of Jan. 1. That's in addition to what might remain from the more than $313 million that 18 local governments – four cities and 14 counties – received directly from the U.S. Treasury. All the funding has an expiration date, some of which ends as soon as September.

Those seeking rental and utilities aid need to apply with their local agency. In many municipalities, such as Circleville, these groups work directly with local courts. For those that don’t, Pickaway County hopes to serve as an example of how unified leadership from a few can help so many.

“To work together for the good of the people in the community, it doesn’t get any better than that,” said Pruitt. “It builds stronger communities.”