Athens City Council passes ‘pay to stay’ ordinance to protect tenants, but asks for legal review

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — The Athens City Council adopted an ordinance Tuesday that would increase protections for tenants facing eviction because they are behind on their rent.

But first council members discussed tabling the ordinance over concerns that a new state law might actually prohibit it.

Those concerns were raised in an email sent to council members an hour and a half before their meeting by an Athens attorney who represents landlords.

Council members ultimately decided to go ahead and pass the ordinance with the understanding they could repeal it during the 30 days before it takes effect if state law does in fact preempt it.

They asked the city’s law director to research the issue and give them an opinion.

The ordinance adopted by the council is known as pay to stay. What it means is that a tenant who is behind on rent and facing eviction can stay in the rental and get the eviction dismissed if they pay what’s owed.

This includes payment not only of back rent, but also late fees, court costs and the landlord’s attorney fees up to $125.

Council member Ben Ziff introduced the ordinance, which had its first reading before the council in early June. Not long after, Gov. Mike DeWine signed into law House Bill 430, which included a last-minute amendment to the state’s landlord-tenant laws.

Zack Eckles, an attorney and policy advocate for the Ohio Poverty Law Center, said that amendment was a reaction to efforts in Columbus to pass a city rent control ordinance.

Under this amendment, HB 430 specifically prohibits cities and other political subdivisions from adopting or enforcing rent control and rent stabilization ordinances.

Eckles said the pay to stay ordinance adopted by the Athens City Council does not attempt to regulate how much a landlord can charge for rent, so it is not covered by the new state law.

Rusty Rittenhouse, an Athens lawyer who represents landlords, has a different interpretation, which he detailed in his email to council members.

Rittenhouse said the new law does single out rent control and rent stabilization in particular, but that it more broadly prohibits local governments from adopting their own landlord-tenant rules. This includes pay to stay ordinances, he said.

He pointed to this language in the new law: “The general assembly reiterates, by the enactment of Chapter 5321 of the Revised Code, that it is the intent of the general assembly to preempt political subdivisions from regulating the rights and obligations of parties to a rental agreement that are regulated by this chapter.”

Chapter 5321 establishes the rules for landlords and tenants.

Rittenhouse has other issues with the ordinance. He said the intention of the pay to stay ordinance is to reimburse landlords for the money they’ve lost because the tenant fell behind on the rent.

But because of the $125 cap on attorney fees, he said, landlords could still be out hundreds of dollars. Rittenhouse said legal costs for an eviction can easily run over $1,000.

Under the ordinance, tenants are given two opportunities to pay the landlord and stop an eviction. They can offer payment before the judge has made a decision in the case. If this happens, the landlord must accept the payment and drop the eviction.

If the landlord refuses, the tenant can cite the ordinance and ask the judge to dismiss the eviction.

The ordinance also allows tenants to pay up after a judge has granted the eviction but before the date by which the tenant is ordered to leave the rental. The landlord must accept the payment and notify the court, which will then vacate the eviction judgment and dismiss the case.

If the landlord refuses, the court must hold an emergency hearing, and if it determines payment was offered it must vacate the judgment and dismiss the case. 

Because most evictions are for nonpayment of rent, the pay to stay ordinance could help a lot of tenants, said Lucy Schwallie, managing attorney for Southeastern Ohio Legal Services, which provides legal aid to low-income residents.

However, she said, most of the Athens County eviction cases her office handles are outside the city of Athens, so the ordinance will not apply, and there are no similar protections in place for tenants.