Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a five-part series about the challenges low-income renters face and potential ways to address them. The series is supported by Wayfinders Ohio. Check back throughout this week to read more.
MANSFIELD — Nicole Davis used to wake up in the middle of the night, terrified that something was crawling up her legs.
Her son Jason, a first grader at Woodland Elementary, was less concerned about bugs. What he remembers about his old house is the raccoons.
“I always wake up and hear scratching in the walls,” he recalled.
For nearly a year, Davis and four of her children rented a house on Mansfield’s south east side.
Davis said the property was riddled with problems — the basement was infested with roaches and mice and covered in black mold. The family couldn’t use the baseboard heating vents because of the musty smell.
Some bedrooms didn’t have light fixtures, so Davis ran extension cords and set up lamps. There were times when they went days without hot water.
Davis had been homeless for five years before she moved into the apartment. She bounced between hotels and other people’s homes while her children stayed with family and friends.
Then she and her children moved into their former residence.
“It was the worst year of my life,” Davis said. “It put me in a real depressed state of mind. I lived in better places being homeless than renting from a slumlord.”
Settling for less
Like most of the nation, Richland County doesn’t have enough affordable housing.
The local Housing Needs and Assessment Plan released in January projects Richland County will need about 2,700 more affordable rental units to meet the community’s needs in 2032. The report defined “affordable” as housing for those earning less than 80 percent of the average median income — $41,550 for an individual or $59,300 for a family of four in 2022.
The report also found that more than 3,000 local renter households are severely cost-burdened.
In other words, one in five renter households in the county pays more than 50 percent of their income toward rent and utilities. In total, 44 percent of renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on utilities and rent.
But Richland County doesn’t just have a quantity problem. It has a quality problem.
“We have, on average, very substandard housing across the board in Mansfield,” said Steve Andrews, executive director of the Mansfield Metropolitan Housing Authority. “Many of our renters are struggling with that on a day-to-day basis.”
When adequate housing is hard to find, some residents feel they have no choice but to settle for less.
Tyishiayanna Dinkins was thrilled to find a two story with four bedrooms on Park Avenue West. She and her children moved there in March 2022.
Dinkins rented the house with a Section 8 voucher, a form of federal housing assistance administered by the Mansfield Metropolitan Housing Authority (MMHA).
“Section 8 is not a thing I want to be on forever,” she said. “I’ve been working to try and get myself off of that, but at the time being, it’s helpful.”
While the home passed its initial inspection, Dinkins and her lawyer said minor issues became health hazards after her landlord failed to address them.
Not long after moving in, Dinkins noticed debris floating up through the drains in the tub and bathroom sink. The first floor ceiling below the bathtub began to leak.
Conditions continued to deteriorate from there.
“(Dinkins) had raw sewage coming out of her bathtub, out of her kitchen sink,” Mansfield attorney Lodema M’Poko said.
“She had insurmountable mold in the basements where she would go down there and it would make her physically ill. She complained about what started off as a minor leak for months.”
Dinkins and Davis both said they tried to contact the out-of-town property management companies that oversaw their respective apartments, but their issues were never resolved.
Kathy Goodwin is a community health worker for the Mansfield City Schools’ S.A.F.E. program, which serves students experiencing housing insecurity and their families.
Last school year, 364 students and their families qualified for services. The majority, 318, were living doubled up with a family or friend. Nineteen were living in a hotel or motel. The rest resided either in a homeless or domestic violence shelter.
Goodwin said she’s met multiple clients living in substandard conditions. One slept on air mattresses with her four children because their apartment had so many bed bugs they couldn’t keep regular beds in the house.
“It was so wet there were slugs coming up into the home through the heating vents,” Goodwin said.
“She had a leak in her roof that just kept getting worse and worse until the roof fell in. Her daughter has asthma, so she ended up in the hospital for a couple days.”
The authors of the Richland County Housing Needs Assessment indicated that local leaders are aware of the problem.
“Overall, there are concerns about the quality of rental housing in Richland County, especially in Mansfield,” the study stated.
“Many rental properties, while affordable, are in a significantly degraded condition and contribute to a sense of blight in certain neighborhoods. Landlords for these properties are often located out of state and are unwilling to engage in local planning efforts.”
It’s not a new problem. Amy Hamrick, manager of the Richland County Land Bank, still remembers a conversation she had with a mother of four while working for the City of Mansfield 10 years ago.
“She was so upset; her landlord wouldn’t do anything,” Hamrick said. “There was six to eight feet of water in the basement at all times. Her kids were always sick.”
The woman couldn’t afford to find another place — her rent was below average at just $200 a month.
“You and I look at (some place) and think we’d never live there,” Hamrick said. “Other people look at it and think, ‘I have no choice.'”
Often, tenants in substandard housing are hesitant to report their landlords to codes and enforcement officers or an even MMHA inspector. Some worry they won’t be able to find another place to live. Others fear retaliation from their landlord.
Davis’ boyfriend encouraged her to report her landlord. Looking back, she said she wishes she had, but she didn’t think anything would change.
How did we get here?
There are multiple factors to Richland County’s housing challenges.
Hamrick said part of the problem is low property values, particularly in Mansfield, have attracted buyers who don’t invest in revitalization or maintenance.
“We have some really bad actors in this area who really don’t care,” Hamrick said. “Too many of them buy them, put them in LLCs, rent them out until they can’t rent them anymore, let it go back through tax foreclosure and go buy others.
“It’s an issue in a lot of areas of Ohio.”
Gary Cassady, an Ontario native and president of the Mid Ohio Real Estate Investors Assocation, said many of those buyers don’t understand the local market because they’re from out-of-state or even out of the country.
“I’ve been in houses recently that should just be tore down and the guy wants $40,000 for it in an area where houses are only selling for $30,000,” he said.
Stigmas about low-income renters can also prompt landlords to invest less in low-rent properties.
“‘Why put $10,0000 in the house when I can put $3,000 in the house and get $300 to $400 a month and they’re just going to tear it up anyway?'” Hamrick said. “I’ve heard that from so many people.”
Tenants aren’t the only ones who pay the price for deferred maintenance. Neighboring homeowners can also suffer declines in their own property value.
“Owner-occupants end up trapped in some of these neighborhoods,” Hamrick said. “You can’t go out and get a home equity loan because there’s no value. Banks are not going to loan you more than what your house is going to be worth.”
Richland County also has a disproportionately older housing stock. About 20 percent of the county’s housing units were built before 1939 and another 55 percent were constructed between 1940– 1979.
In Shelby, nearly one-third of housing units were built before 1939. In Mansfield, it’s one in four.
During a conversation with members of a local landlord association, many told Richland Source that revitalizing Richland County’s most decrepit housing stock simply isn’t a good business investment.
Cassady said he recently toured a property listed for just $5,000, but it will take at least $40,000 to bring it up to a livable standard.
“The rent value wouldn’t be equal or equivalent to what it needs to be for a decent return to cover all expenses,” he said.
Hamrick said the land bank is sometimes criticized for demolishing so many homes, but their reasons are similar.
“Almost every house (donated to the land bank) needs plumbing, electric, windows,” Hamrick said.
“In a lot of cases it could be salvaged, but it might take $75,000 in a $30,000 neighborhood. If we were to sell a house to be salvaged, would someone come in and do it right?”
Even for well-maintained older housing, updates and maintenance come with costs, which means landlords sometimes need to raise their rents in order to make upgrades. Investing in and maintaining quality housing comes with risk and a price tag.
Local real estate investor Edward Akinyemi said landlords have to factor in property taxes, maintenance and repair costs, insurance, emergencies and sometimes, a mortgage payment.
“People only see the amount of rent we charge and think that’s how much profit we make,” he added. “Once you deduct all that, most landlords really don’t make that much money.”
Dinkins and Davis both have positive relationships with the people they rent from now.
Moving out and moving on
When Dinkins came home from work on June 17, 2022, she found her kitchen ceiling had caved in.
After that, she knew staying put wasn’t an option. She worked with the MMHA to get out of her lease and moved with her five children into her mother’s tiny apartment.
She found her current apartment a few months later.
“I was excited. I was happy because it felt good to have something nice and new,” she said. “When I moved in, we laid on the floor (without mattresses) for about a month, which was fine.
“I was OK with it, as long as we had somewhere to go.”
Her advice to others living in substandard housing is to not let anyone take advantage of them.
“You still are human,” she said. “Don’t just let them take your livelihood right from under your feet. Fight for it. That’s what I did. I’m not giving up.”
About eight months after moving into her former home, Davis got a call. Her name had been pulled from the Section 8 voucher waitlist.
After qualifying for a voucher, she was also able to find a better place. Now she rents a clean, pest-free house.
In their new home, Davis’ children can invite their friends over to play. She can host her family for birthday barbecues. She gets a good night’s sleep.
“I can actually breathe now,” she said. “I can be comfortable in my own house.”
Her new home is just around the corner from her old apartment.
“(The other) apartment is still standing,” Davis said. “They’re still trying to find people to rent it.”