Athens City Council votes to reconsider its new ‘pay to stay’ ordinance

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — The Athens City Council voted Monday to reconsider an ordinance that would offer more protection to tenants who fall behind on their rent.

Athens City Hall is seen in Athens, Ohio, on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
Athens City Hall is seen in Athens, Ohio, on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
The council passed the so-called pay to stay ordinance two weeks ago, although there were concerns about whether it was prohibited by recent changes to state law.

Lisa Eliason, the city’s law director, was asked to investigate and offer her opinion. In an email to council members on Friday, Eliason said the pay to stay ordinance does not conflict with the new law.

Eliason said it appears the changes were intended to prohibit municipalities from adopting rent control and rent stabilization ordinances.

She also noted that a court in Hamilton County said in a recent decision that Cincinnati’s pay to stay ordinance does not conflict with state law.

Nevertheless, a majority of council members voted to reconsider the ordinance so the council can hear testimony from more people, including landlords, before deciding whether to keep the ordinance as is, amend it or scrap it.

It has not yet been determined at which council meeting that will happen.

Under the pay to stay ordinance as written, 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 by the date of the eviction hearing.

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

Rusty Rittenhouse, an Athens lawyer who represents landlords in eviction cases, told the council Monday that this cap on legal fees is much too low.

“As anyone who’s ever hired a lawyer will know, that $125 will get you nowhere,” he said. Lawyers bill at $200 to $300 an hour for this work and a typical eviction will take four to five hours, he said.

“It’s not uncommon for a landlord to incur $1,000 in legal fees in order to pursue an eviction,” he said.

Rittenhouse also raised a constitutional objection. He said the ordinance forces landlords to accept payment. This invalidates the landlord’s eviction action, which divests the court of its jurisdiction to hear the case.

Municipalities do not have the power to limit the jurisdiction of a court, he said.

Council member Solveig Spjeldnes said she has talked to landlords she knows who have told her they are not concerned about the ordinance.

“They make a practice of working with their tenants to make sure they stay housed,” she said.

Eliason noted in her email to council members that as a practical matter few tenants may be able to take advantage of the pay to stay option. The vast majority of evictions are because tenants cannot pay the rent, she said, so it’s unlikely many will be able to come up with not only the past due rent but all the other fees.