The Senate Select Committee on Housing held a hearing in Cleveland this month to explore and address issues surrounding the housing crisis in Ohio.
Throughout the day, more than 80 individuals and groups testified, each focusing on various topics such as the increase in property taxes, how homelessness is affecting people’s health, and more. The City of Cleveland, Cleveland City Council President Blaine Griffin, Councilperson Stephanie Howse-Jones, representatives from Metro Health spoke, asking for the state’s support, investment, and efforts to promote equitable and affordable housing.
“The time has come for our state to unite, advocate, and work towards solutions that ensure every Ohioan has a place to call home,” Douglass Bennett, Step Forward’s Vice President of External Affairs, said.
Bennett submitted written testimony on behalf of Step Forward, Ohio’s largest Community Action Agency and the designated anti-poverty agency for Cuyahoga County.
“Step Forward has a deep understanding of our community’s needs,” the testimony read. “Through extensive experience and direct engagement with individuals and families facing housing challenges, we have developed a comprehensive understanding of the complexities and nuances of housing insecurity in our community.”
Prior to the pandemic, low-income Ohioans were already experiencing a housing crisis. In fact, a recent study, prepared by Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Service on behalf of the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies, looked at home relief funding between 2020 and 2023. During that time, Ohio’s network of 47 Community Action Agencies were tasked with the distribution of nearly $660 million in federal rental, mortgage, and utility allowance allocated to the state of Ohio. The study found for every 100 extremely low-income households, there were only 34 affordable and available rental units statewide. The study claimed only 14 of Ohio’s 88 counties were able to meet half of the housing needs of renters within the income bracket.
In 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Step Forward and Community Action Agencies across the country were allocated millions of dollars. Each organization was instructed to distribute the funding to eligible residents who needed home relief assistance. Renters had to meet specific eligibility criteria, which typically included demonstrating a loss of income due to the pandemic, outstanding rent, and/or their risk of eviction. Renters applied for assistance through their state or local government’s designated program. Once an individual or family was approved, the funds were directly paid to landlords to cover back rent, current rent, and utility bills. In some cases, renters received payments to cover the expenses themselves. In turn, landlords who received Home Relief Assistance payments had to agree that they would not evict tenants for a specified period of time.
Between 2019 and 2021, Step Forward recorded a 1,600-percent increase in the annual amount of housing assistance we distributed.
At the beginning of 2023, Step Forward received $9 million in Home Relief Assistance. Due an overwhelming need in the community, our agency distributed that amount of money within three months. Step Forward requested additional funding and allocated that amount within two months. The agency’s Emergency Assistance Program has been providing about $1 million to residents per month since then.
Between January 1, 2020 and September 5, 2023, Step Forward distributed more than $29 million in Home Relief Grant funding to those who were vulnerable to eviction.
Despite the positive impact of this assistance, the demand for rental assistance remained high. As of January 2024, Step Forward continued to provide rental assistance to those in need. The agency intermittently closed the application portal to process paperwork, accepting only 250 applications at a time to process each in a timely manner.
In June 2023, Kalika Pascol found herself facing unexpected financial hardship. After losing her job, Kalika and her family were in a state of anxiety, unsure of how they would manage to pay their rent and other essential bills. Despite her background in property management, Kalika found herself in need of assistance for the first time. It was then that she reached out to Step Forward. Thanks to the timely assistance provided by Step Forward, Kalika received enough aid to cover her overdue rent and upcoming months, providing her family with much-needed stability and relief. This support not only allowed them to keep a roof over their heads but also alleviated the financial strain they were facing, enabling them to focus on their health and wellbeing. Bennett shared Kalika’s story as a powerful example of how the assistance provided by Step Forward had a meaningful and positive impact on the lives of others. It also underscored the importance of continued support for housing assistance programs.
Several Community Action Agencies, including the Great Lakes Community Action Partnership, the Washington-Morgan Counties Community Action, and the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency, offered testimony regarding housing.
In 2023, Step Forward and the Center for Community Solutions surveyed more than 400 Cuyahoga County residents with household incomes below $30,000. The primary objective of this survey was to gain insights into the community’s evolving needs and to identify how Step Forward could best serve as a resource. For example, survey results showed a significant increase in the demand for help. Between 2021 and 2023, people said they found themselves needing help to purchase food, clothing and household items, rental assistance, and utility assistance. A concerning trend emerged, with at least 40 percent of survey-takers reporting their financial situation was worse off than it was before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 60 percent of survey takers expressed that it has become harder to escape poverty compared to pre-COVID years, indicating growing challenges for low-income individuals in our community. The survey also revealed a substantial increase in the need for housing assistance, with 41 percent of respondents indicating a requirement for help with housing payments or rent in 2023, compared to 13 percent in 2019.
“These findings highlight the urgent need to address the housing and financial stability needs of our community, emphasizing the crucial role that Community Action Agencies like Step Forward play in providing essential support and resources,” Bennett said. “Emergency Rental Assistance Programs, combined with the efforts of Community Action Agencies like Step Forward, have been instrumental in stabilizing the lives of at-risk individuals and families in our community. The ongoing demand for help underscores the need for continued support and funding to ensure that no one is left behind in the pursuit of stable and secure housing.”