News » News Features

A Ripped Safety Net

One family's journey to the brink of homelessness.

by

TaShiba Smith and her children are left with a biblical - reminder of their ordeal. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • TaShiba Smith and her children are left with a biblical reminder of their ordeal.

As October waned, Angela Jones worried. An eviction notice menaced her from its ripped-open envelope. She was sliding into homelessness -- her daughter and three grandchildren in tow.

The ground started giving way in July, when Jones, a high-school secretary, replied to an innocuous classified ad. The ad featured a house Jones thought her daughter, TaShiba Smith, 25, might want to rent. Jones often handles the affairs of her daughter, who sustained a head injury at 18 months of age and still has a shunt draining fluid from her brain. Smith and her three children -- ages five, four, and two -- had lost their housing and moved in with Jones in July.

The arrangement was only temporary. Smith, who receives permanent disability and welfare, had onetime emergency rent vouchers from the county worth $750 for a place of her own. They were to expire July 12, and Jones was having difficulty finding a voucher-friendly landlord. So when she got Pauline Daley on the telephone, she was pleased, if a little surprised.

Daley owns a business called Renter's Outreach, which she describes as a private club that provides rental listings to its members. Daley says she gives her clients -- many of whom have Section 8 subsidies -- an exclusive list of available properties that she updates twice a week.

According to Jones, Daley said she knew plenty of landlords who took vouchers. For $80, she would give Jones a list.

On her lunch hour, Jones rushed to the Renter's Outreach office on Libby Road, paid the fee, and left with a strong recommendation to call landlord Myron G. Hines.

"As long as I've dealt with him, I've never had any complaints," Daley says. "As far as I know, he's a very Christian person."

Hines is indeed a Christian -- a self-proclaimed evangelist of Saturday-morning-abortion-protester stock. But he's also a frequent visitor to Cleveland Municipal Court. He's had more than 80 cases dating back to 1993. Although most involve evictions, paying property taxes and mortgages have also proved burdensome for Hines -- so much so that he filed for bankruptcy protection last year.

"I wouldn't say I'm a slum landlord," Hines says. "I would say my property has fell to low standards due to my high eviction rate."

Daley says she doesn't typically check out landlords unless they're new to her listings. And in this case, her recommendation of Hines set into motion a chain of broken assurances that left Smith and her children nearly homeless.

Although Jones's story involves just one family, one landlord, and the business that brought them together, it shows how easily welfare recipients can get squeezed out of Cleveland's tight affordable housing market. Even the state's emergency rental vouchers, designed as safety nets, offer no protection against shady landlords, who "date back to the Garden of Eden," according to one state official.

Both Jones and Hines say Smith was supposed to move into a house at 12312 Benwood after August 1. The house needed repairs, and Hines was in the process of evicting someone from the property, but he assured Jones it would be ready by the move-in date. Hines signed the vouchers, certifying "that the listed articles/services were provided" to Smith. Then he sent Jones off with a Ten Commandments yard sign but no lease. Hines said most of his tenants rent on a month-to-month basis.

"I trusted him, because he told me how he helped people," Jones says. "And if you called his house on his answering service, he records a different scripture from the Bible, so I thought he was trustworthy."

Jones turned in the vouchers to the county and waited for the property to become available. But that's where the shared recollection of the two parties ends. While neither produces much documentation to back up their words, Jones recalls approximate dates and intricate details of conversations with Hines, much of which she recorded in a desperate five-page plea for help she e-mailed to media organizations and politicians on October 29.

Jones's version: Weeks passed after she sent in the voucher, and Hines didn't call. When Jones called Hines in mid-August -- concerned about getting her granddaughter settled before kindergarten started -- he told her the Benwood property still wasn't ready. He offered her two other properties instead -- one on East 125th Street and one on East 151st. Jones rejected the house in the "drug-infested" East 125th neighborhood, but was interested in one floor of the house on East 151st -- a light-blue, two-family home just 10 minutes from where she lives. Hines said another person was interested in renting the entire house, but if she didn't, Jones could. He'd let her know.

Again, no call came. Jones says she called him so many times, Hines blocked her number. Finally, in mid-September, Jones reached him. He told her the Benwood property was ready. When she reminded him that she was interested in the East 151st property, he said he wanted more money for it. Jones recruited her niece to move into the house with her daughter and agreed to the increased rent. When Jones went to see the house again, however, she was shocked at its condition.

"There was a giant hole in the garage," she recalls. "There was a couch on the side of the house and a piece of wood being used to keep the door shut. There were holes in the doors where the locks used to be. The toilets needed to be replaced."

In addition, an eviction notice had been tacked to the door. Unbeknownst to Jones, Hines had lost the house to foreclosure, and it had been sold in a sheriff's sale. The title was transferred to the new owner on October 30.

Three weeks earlier, Jones had received an eviction notice of her own. Her landlord said she was violating her rental agreement by housing her daughter and grandchildren. If she didn't move them out, she would be evicted November 1.

Exasperated, Jones asked to see the Benwood property again. Hines said he had rented it to someone else.

"So you're telling me you don't have a place for my child to live, and you've had her money for two months?" she asked him, incredulous.

Then Jones demanded a refund. But Hines agreed to give her only the security deposit. He said he was entitled to keep the first month's rent.

Hines has his own version of events. He says the Benwood property was available from August to October 4, when he rented it to someone else. Although he cashed the check he received from the county for Smith's rent in mid-August, he agrees he never housed her. For this, he maintains, Jones should take the blame. He says Jones never called him to move in until mid-October, at which point she inquired about the East 151st Street property "for a friend."

"Right after a party moved into that [Benwood] property, Angela emerged on the scene demanding cash," he says. "I offered her two other properties, and she didn't want either one, because she had already found a property, and she wanted me to cash the voucher in."

But Jones said she didn't find a new place for Smith to live until October 29, the same day she sent out her five-page e-mail titled "I need help and I don't know where else to turn."

While Smith and her children were spared from the street, the rent and security deposit depleted Smith's monthly Social Security and welfare allowances. It also took a painful bite out of Jones's bank account, making her own bills late this month. And Jones's landlord has started eviction proceedings to remove her from her house.

Although Jones is the only one accusing Hines of any wrongdoing, John Allen, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, says Jones could ask the county to investigate the landlord. But there is no lease or written agreement stating when Smith was entitled to the property, just vouchers Hines signed assuring the state that he provided shelter to Smith. While both parties agree that didn't happen, each blames the other. Because the form is generic -- nothing like a lease -- the whole affair has devolved into a maddening war of words. Hines says he will reimburse the county for the security deposit, but not the first month's rent.

With a full-time job, a full-time family, and now house-hunting, Jones says she doesn't have time to keep chasing after her daughter's lost rent. But after hearing Hines's version of the story, she did call the God-fearing landlord for a last farewell.

"I told him he was going to hell."

comment

Add a comment