AKRON, Ohio — Not that he enjoyed it, but Mark Amos calls the first time he was homeless a “blessing.”
Six years ago, he had been paying $150 a week to live in a room off South Main Street -- not a hotel room, just a room in a big square building. The factory worker from West Akron said he should have been in an apartment better suited for a single man in his mid-fifties.
He lost his job at a manufacturer in Twinsburg and wound up in a homeless shelter for three months. He landed his next job at an aluminum manufacturer in Barberton and worked his way up to $16 an hour, the most he’s ever made.
For $465 a month, Amos found a 450-square-foot apartment in a terraced, four-unit building behind a coffee shop in Highland Square. At the time, he thought he would retire in seven years with a pension, his savings intact and full Social Security benefits.
Then it happened again.
“I lost my job,” he said. “I don’t want to use the ‘r word,’ but a group of people came against me and decided they didn’t want me there.” Amos, who is Black, had just bought a new car in late 2019 when he was unemployed a second time, just days before getting a $2,000 Christmas bonus.
His unemployment expired 12 months later in December 2020. He’s waiting on a possible extension. By the time he checked on rental assistance last year, the county had depleted its first round of federal stimulus.
Afraid of the coronavirus at 63 years old, he’s watched his savings dwindle while holed up in his apartment, which has gone up $50 a month (or 11%) since he moved in five years ago.
At one time, he thought about owning a home. That was just a dream.
“I’ve always rented. I’ve never been able to own my own house due to the fact that I’ve been in and out of work so much. I’ve lost so many jobs,” he said. “When you’re making just enough to make ends meet, you know, $12 or $13 an hour, paying child support, living by myself, it’s been hard.”
Now, he’s “praying that God” will save him from homelessness. He knows the landlord won’t.
“He’s pretty strict,” said Amos. “He wants the rent in on time.”
The pandemic, from its disproportionate impact on low-income renters to the government relief paying their bills, has smoothed the rough-and-tumble edges of landlording and renting in Akron. The municipal court serving the city is seeing nothing near the record-level 10.5 daily evictions filed this time last year.
But not even the virus can stunt Akron’s rental market -- a big business that grows each year as renters outnumber homeowners.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Akron renters paid their landlords $372 million in 2019 to live in the city’s nearly 40,000 rental units. Outpacing inflation, that’s up from $280 million in 2010 and $212 million in 2000.
Local data on single-family home sales suggests new rental units were added throughout the pandemic.
Total market value is climbing with the conversion of family-owned homes to apartments and rising rents. Multiple factors are driving up rent in the city: soaring sewer bills, inflated costs for building materials and labor, rebounding pre-pandemic wages, low interest rates pushing up property values and rising property values that raise taxes.
The supply of apartments also is growing, at the expense of owner-occupied homes. With higher-end apartments getting much of the city’s first 15-year tax abatements on new construction, landlords get around a stubborn shortage of affordable housing by pushing Akron to a city where more than half of homes are for rent.
The city lost its greatest portion of owner-occupied homes in a wave of foreclosures from 2006 to 2011. A second foreclosure wave hit delinquent property taxpayers in 2015. In all, 7,077 owner-occupied homes became vacant, bank-owned, demolished or purchased at auction by investors and landlords by 2016.
In that time, the city added 5,972 rentals — mostly through the conversion of single family homes.
Home ownership, which allows families to build and transfer generational wealth, has slipped the hardest for the country’s Black population. In Akron, rents cut deepest into incomes and homeownership rates are the lowest in poor and minority neighborhoods.
The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University and the Urban Institute have found that Black residents are more likely to rent in America, putting greater portions of their paychecks toward rent and losing more homes in the Great Recession. Levels of Black homeownership by 2017 had reached 1960s levels, “when private race-based discrimination was legal,” the Urban Institute found.
And the data suggest economic hardship exacerbates the slide to a majority-rental housing market in Akron.
In four of the last seven years, and for the first time ever in 2013, the Census Bureau has estimated more apartments than owner-occupied housing units in Akron. The shift away from homeownership accelerated during the Great Recession. What’s concerning is that it continues despite improving market conditions for renters looking to buy their first home: property values stopped falling in 2017 and went up in 2020; pre-pandemic wages grew, especially for renters who tend to make less; and 30-year fixed mortgage rates (the most common path to home ownership) tumbled from 5% in late 2018 to around 2.6% today, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
Cheap money and old homes prime Akron’s rental market for opportunity and exploitation.
“There’s a lot of amateurs. A lot of guys who think they’re going to buy a couple houses and retire a millionaire,” said Terry Dotson, who now owns 147 rental units after 22 years in the business. “It don’t work like that.
“Right across the street, if you look at that house they’re working on, it’s a dump. It probably should have been bulldozed,” Dotson said from inside an apartment unit in Kenmore where he grew up.
“I think these days, there’s so much more press on the business that more people are apt to try it if they’re financially able. You gotta do your homework. You can’t just jump into [the landlord business] and think you’re going to get rich.”
Behind “huge misconception ... are huge cost factors,” Dotson explained. “My water bills alone are $3,000 a month in Akron. And not all my apartments are in Akron.
“My operating costs have skyrocketed in the last couple years,” said Dotson, whose annual property tax bill went from about $38,000 in 2020 to $45,000 this year after the recent reappraisal.
“Everything we own in Summit County just got taxed more, and we can’t raise rents fast enough to accommodate that. I don’t know how other landlords do it. We personally try not to jack the rent on long-term tenants. Basically, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Rent increases occur when a new tenant moves in, after he cleans the carpets, patches holes and paints the walls. The efficiency apartment in Kenmore, for example, is going from $485 to $495. At that price, Dotson gets a couple dozen applicants. Most will be disregarded for eviction records, no proof of income or bad credit.
There’s a “fine line” in raising rent, he said. Go above $500 for this little apartment and he’ll get maybe two callers with little chance that either would pass his rigorous screening process. And Dotson sets a high bar for his tenants. Scrutiny up front lessens the chances of an eviction before a one-year lease is up.
Dotson retired in 2019 after 25 years selling auto parts on Triplett Boulevard. Now he watches the properties he and his wife own. He keeps a binder with the rent owed by each tenant. Twenty-four names (including one who’s being evicted after stabbing the walls with a knife in an incident that required the police) are circled in thick red marker. They’re all behind. And that’s not abnormal.
“Bums before the pandemic are still bums,” Dotson said. Federal relief has kept most of his tenants paying on time. Others miss a couple days or weeks until unemployment or rental assistance clears. At least six have said they mailed the rent check. Based on their willingness to pay on time in the past, Dotson believes most of them, especially with mail service so behind that the current month’s rent check sometimes arrives before the previous month’s payment.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Dotson worked with tenants to get out in front of potential issues and personally took advantage of deferrals offered by mortgage companies. Monthly payments were tacked onto the end of his mortgages, which he doesn’t expect to be paid in full in his lifetime. He took the deal to endure the economic shutdown his tenants would face.
The second federal relief package provided $25 billion in rental assistance. Moody's Analytics, a financial risk assessor, estimated at the time that back rent totaled $70 billion in the U.S.
While 2020 Census data encompassing the pandemic’s impact on housing and homeownership will not be available for months, locally tracked sales show out-of-town or out-of-state investors continuing to bet on undervalued Akron homes.
The Summit County Fiscal Office provided the Beacon Journal a comprehensive database of every property in the county, including the last time it sold and basic information on the seller and buyer. There’s no foolproof way to tell if a home was bought to be lived in or as an investment. But if the property is on the county’s state-mandated rental registry, which the data suggests some landlords ignore, or if the physical address differs from the where the tax bill is sent, the home is more likely an asset to be flipped or rented than lived in by its new owner.
Last year, 8,442 single family homes sold in Summit County, including 3,140 in Akron. In the city, 41% of the homes purchased in 2020 now have a separate tax mailing address, or nearly double the 22% of Summit County homes outside of Akron that are probably being flipped or rented.
Sharon’s personal home may be the next to sell.
The North Hill resident asked that her last name not be used in this story while she lives alone fixing up and selling her home.
For now, she lives between two rental homes: one owned by a tax delinquent landlord and the other by East Akron Neighborhood Development Corp., a local nonprofit housing and community developer.
In 26 years in her two-story colonial, Sharon has raised three children and a grandchild. Before it became too much of “a headache,” she owned rental properties decades ago with her late husband. She still rents one to a family member.
Now, she’s doing what her neighbors have done for decades: “selling their houses and moving to the outskirts.”
She has a couple buyers interested in viewing the home when the remodeling is done.
“It would be owner-occupied,” she said. “But if one of them don’t buy it, it’ll go on the market to whoever.”
Down the street, Ronald Carroll, 29, has lived with his wife, two dogs and three sons in a large five-bedroom home the family has rented since 2017 for $750 a month.
The family also is looking to move out of Akron, to trade rent checks for mortgage payments and a bigger yard.
Carroll, who grew up in West Akron, works at the YMCA and helps his wife, who teaches in Akron Public Schools, with her in-home crafting business.
“I think the biggest thing, especially for the Akron market, is a lot of these houses are more than what they’re worth, even on the rental side,” Carroll said. “There’s plenty of evictions down the street, but we’re still paying $750. I’ve been paying that since we moved here. Is the house worth it? It could be, potentially, if the area was worth it.”
Carroll and others see neighbors move out and tenants move in, and they connect that to an influx of drag racing and shootings, not from public housing down the street but from unsupervised, idle youth or unfamiliar new faces with no vested interest in the community.
“If you don’t have a property agency that you go through or a good landlord, your structure is going down real fast. I mean, there’s a lot of condemned houses, empty houses around here, lots of kids will run around and destroy what’s degrading as is. It’s not making the community any better, or your property value for that matter,” he said.
“For the most part, this side of the street, everyone has been here for years, or as long as we’ve been here. That side has turned over way more than normal,” he said, pointing south. “The only owner, I think, is on that corner. Every house has turned over since we’ve been here. Those houses have turned over since we’ve been here. It continually changes and it’s not always better people. I don’t even make it a point to know anybody else, aside from on this street.”
RELATED: Home in Akron: The cost of renting
Reach Beacon Journal reporter Doug Livingston at email@example.com or 330-996-3792.
This “Home in Akron” story is part of a local media collaborative informed by a series of 2019 town hall meetings across Akron.
Throughout 2021, we are continuing to explore the complex issues confronting Akron’s housing and rental markets and the impact on citizens and the city’s goal of growing its population.
Project partners include the Akron Beacon Journal, The Devil Strip, WKSU, Your Voice Ohio, News Channel 5 and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.
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