by Andrew Neuhauser, CLA Managing Attorney

The Ohio General Assembly is considering three bills - HB 478, HB 480, and SB 241 -  that would create an expedited eviction process when a landlord believes residents are so-called squatters.  

These bills would allow the property owner or a property owner’s authorized agent to have the sheriff immediately remove the occupant from the property if the owner or the owner’s agent signs a document saying the occupant is not a tenant.  The owner or agent would pay the sheriff $60 to remove the occupant - much less than the cost of an eviction, which varies by court but is usually around $200 from start to finish.  If an occupant is a tenant, they would need to file a civil lawsuit and litigate the case.  This process could take several weeks or months, during which time it is very likely that someone else would occupy the house.

Ohio’s current eviction process is one of the fastest in the country.  If a tenant violates the lease for something like non-payment of rent, the landlord can give the tenant a notice.  If the tenant does not vacate in three days, the landlord can file an eviction lawsuit.  The eviction hearing can take place in as little time as one week after the landlord filed the lawsuit.  If the landlord is successful at the hearing, the tenant is usually set out in seven days.  In the courts we work in, the entire process - from default to set out - usually takes less than a month.  In creating this fast process, the eviction process does away with many of the legal protections that most other defendants in civil litigation receive.  

If enacted, these bills would have detrimental effects on the people Community Legal Aid services.  

First, the bill would create confusion as to whether a tenant is covered by the normal landlord-tenant laws or the expedited eviction process.  A significant portion of the tenants we serve do not have written leases or other documentation showing that they are tenants.  Under Ohio law, those tenants have oral month-to-month tenancies.  These bills would make it possible for a landlord to claim that a tenant with an oral month-to-month lease is actually a squatter and, thus, subject to the less expensive and quicker eviction process.

Second, an actual squatter - a person who has entered a property without any legal right to be there - is already breaking criminal laws such as breaking and entering and criminal trespass.  Squatters do not obtain legal rights just because they stay in the property for a certain number of days, weeks, or months.  Nothing about the current landlord-tenant laws in Ohio prevent a landlord from pursuing criminal charges against someone who breaks into a property and occupies it.

In our work, we very rarely see squatters.  More often, we see property managers trying to evict lawful tenants under false pretenses.  Recently, we saw a property manager file a lawsuit against “John Doe,” testify in court that an occupant was a squatter, and get a judgment against the occupant.  In reality, the occupant was a tenant with a written lease and the tenant was current with his rent.  If enacted, the proposed bills would make this type of situation much more common and the effects on low-income tenants will be severe.