Rent escrow protects tenants from negligent landlords
By Graig Graziosi
For renters, relationships with landlords can be among the most volatile and stress-inducing in their lives.
According to data collected by Princeton University, the eviction rate in Mahoning County has sat solidly at 4 percent since the recession.
Before the economic collapse, the eviction rate was 1.7 percent. When a tenant fails to pay rent, a landlord has every legal right to evict them; however, even a renter who is withholding rent to pressure their landlord into answering a maintenance request is subject to eviction, regardless of how legitimate their grievance.
In that scenario – in which a landlord is neglecting a tenant’s reasonable maintenance request – tenants do have recourse; they can place their rent in a court-managed escrow program until their needs are addressed.
Struthers Municipal Judge Dominic Leone said the court was in the process of developing educational packets to help educate renters on their rights and on the escrow process.
“I don’t think a lot of tenants know the laws or have researched their rights, so the more knowledge they have, the more they can utilize it to protect themselves,” Judge Leone said.
Here’s how it works: A tenant – who is not in the process of being evicted and who is current on rent – gives a written letter outlining the complaint to the landlord.
After a reasonable amount of time – often, but not always 30 days – has passed without the landlord addressing the request, the tenant can then begin the escrow process with their local municipal court.
Once that process has begun, the tenant essentially pays the rent to the court, which holds the money.
The funds are released once the landlord has responded to the maintenance request or it can be released back to the tenants for use toward remedying the problem themselves.
Patricia Dougan, a lawyer at Community Legal Aid, helps tenants navigate the process. She emphasized the importance of tenants being current on their rent if they hope to get any of their complaints heard.
“You must be current. If you aren’t, a judge is going to tell you there’s nothing they can do 100 percent of the time,” Dougan said.
She also encouraged tenants to seek legal counsel before attempting the process to ensure they are proceeding correctly and to protect them from possibly being evicted.
In the event a landlord challenges the complaint, both the landlord and the tenant will be responsible for providing evidence of their positions to the court. Tenants should keep copies of any letters they send to their landlords and take photos of the issues they have with their properties.