Athens, Ohio’s response to COVID-19 highlights health hazards of landlord rule

By Damon Krane 
Athens News (Athens, Ohio)
Thursday, April 2, 2020

Beginning on March 12, municipalities all over Ohio and the U.S. began heeding the advice of public health experts by halting residential eviction hearings to slow the spread of COVID-19. Mayors, city councils, county officials and judges all stepped up to make this happen. But here in Athens County, elected officials either passed the buck or acted directly to carry out evictions for much longer.

When I urged local officials to halt evictions at the March 16 Athens City Council meeting, council President Chris Knisely replied, “I’m not sure that the city actually governs evictions,” and Athens Mayor Steve Patterson stated, “It would be a Municipal Court decision, in terms of managing evictions or putting a moratorium on them.” The following day, Athens County Commissioner Lenny Eliason told the Athens Messenger, “We don’t have any authority when it comes to that.”

Yet on March 16, Cleveland City Council announced it would halt evictions if Cleveland Municipal Court didn’t act first. Oakland, California’s City Council already had done the same thing on March 12. The mayors of Seattle and San Francisco banned evictions on March 13, as did the mayors of Los Angeles on March 15 and San Diego on March 16, with the support of their city councils. In Mayor Patterson’s former hometown of Portland, Oregon, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury jointly issued an eviction ban on March 17.

Meanwhile, beginning on March 13, municipal courts all over Ohio began halting evictions, including those in Franklin, Hamilton, Montgomery, Bellefontaine, Shelby and Adams counties, as well as Dayton Municipal Court and Toledo Municipal Court.

On March 16, Southeastern Ohio Legal Services Director Lucy Schwallie sent a letter to Athens County Municipal Judge Todd Grace in which she argued, “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.”

That same day multiple residents spoke at Athens City Council’s meeting to urge local officeholders to halt evictions, and a petition signed by 800 residents (934 eventually) demanded the same.

Yet on March 16 and 17, Judge Grace publicly stated he would continue holding eviction hearings. By then courts covering all of Ohio’s major cities and many outlying areas already had halted evictions, and two days later, on March 19, the Ohio Supreme Court urged all remaining courts to follow suit. Thus it was not until March 23, on the eve of Ohio’s March 24 State of Emergency declaration, that Grace finally relented and suspended eviction hearings along with all other in-person hearings.

So what gives?

Every single partisan office in Athens County is held by a Democrat. The Democratic Party is supposed to be on the side of low-income renters and on the side of science. It was Democrats who passed Oregon and California’s rent-control laws, which former Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris praised, and which Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders seeks to expand into a national policy.

Likewise, most officeholders across the U.S. who heeded medical experts’ advice and quickly halted evictions are Democrats. Yet here in Athens – the bluest county in Ohio – it took pressure from the Republican-controlled Ohio Supreme Court to get Democratic officeholders to stop hurting low-income renters and exacerbating a public health crisis by ignoring medical science.

And there’s no mystery as to why.

Judge Grace is a landlord. His wife, Athens City Council member Sarah Grace, is a landlord. Grace’s fellow council member, Pete Kotses, is a landlord. And while Mayor Patterson is not a landlord, the majority of top donors to his last two mayoral campaigns are four landlords who together own more than 1,000 bedrooms in the city of Athens alone and collect an estimated $6 million annually from residential city renters.

What we call the Athens County Democratic Party is actually a bipartisan coalition of landlords and politicians beholden to landlords. During last year’s mayoral campaign, Patterson bragged to The Post that Republicans don’t run against him because he’s already the mayor they want – and, indeed, his supporters included 15-year chair of the Athens County Republican Party, Pete Couladis, and major landlord Demetrios Prokos, who has donated $4,000 to Republican state Rep. Jay Edwards.

And it doesn’t take a global pandemic for local officeholders to put landlord profits before public health and safety.

Even after city negligence contributed to the Carriage Hill Apartments fire of 2017, the city of Athens still won’t hire enough rental housing inspectors to adequately enforce the housing code, and city Law Director Lisa Eliason (wife of County Commissioner Lenny Eliason) continues to violate the code herself by ignoring its stated penalties for violations in order to let offending landlords off the hook.

The only difference now is that local officeholders aren’t just continuing to put tenants’ lives at risk by refusing to adequately regulate the local rental market. Now, they’ve put all Athens Countians’ lives at risk by increasing everyone’s chance of contracting and spreading a deadly virus.

We can’t ignore this problem any longer.


Damon Krane is a longtime local social-justice organizer who ran unsuccessfully against Mayor Patterson last year as an independent democratic socialist with a platform focused on housing issues. He was actively involved in recent efforts to halt evictions.

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