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Akron Muni Court’s new housing program in full swing

Legal News Reporter

Published: February 23, 2024

According to the Ohio Housing Finance Agency, the state’s eviction filing rate rose to 6.4% in 2022.
That’s more than 2% higher than it was in 2020 when local and federal moratoria on eviction proceedings and emergency rental assistance are credited with decreasing the filings to 4.2% from the prior year’s pre-pandemic statistic of 6.6%.
It’s this rise in filings that a new housing program unveiled in the fall of 2023 at Akron Municipal Court is designed to address.
Led by Akron Municipal Court judges Nicole Walker and Ron Cable, the program is designed to promote workable solutions between landlords and tenants through mediation.
“Akron has one of the highest eviction rates in the state and in the country,” said Judge Cable. “A large percentage of these disputes are simply the result of a breakdown in communication between the two parties.
“We are trying to change the way we resolve these disputes by bringing landlords and tenants together so they can hammer out the issues and hopefully resolve them in an amicable way that works in the best interest of both parties.”
“This program also aims to help indigent homeowners who have been cited by the city for failure to maintain utilities and make repairs find workable solutions that do not involve serving jail time,” said Judge Walker.
Since the second half of 2021 parties involved in eviction and small claims cases have been required to register for the Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) program unless they obtain an exemption from the court.
The new program provides a variety of referrals to landlords and tenants, including financial and housing relocation resources, while assisting them in understanding the mediation process and the benefits of utilizing it to resolve their matters.
“Our newly established housing program pairs well with the other community-focused initiatives we run at the Akron Municipal Court,” said Judge Cable.
“Tenants and landlords do not need to be involved with litigation to use this program but if they are, the goal is to get them to resolve their disputes through mediation,” Judge Cable said.
Since last year, three professionals have been hired to staff the new program including court mediator Hope McGonigle, housing program specialist/facilitator Vyrone Finney and court navigator/bailiff Tamara Brooks.
The jobs were created after court officials received grant money to cover the cost.
The positions filled by Brooks and Finney are funded by a $240,000 grant from the National Center for State Courts’ Eviction Diversion Initiative.
In all 10 courts around the country were awarded more than $2 million. Akron Municipal Court is the only one in Ohio that received the funds which were used to start the new housing program and hire Brooks and Finney.
McGonigle’s role is funded through a $425,000 grant from the Ohio Court Backlog Reduction Program, which is part of the American Rescue Plan Act. The program was created to help courts facilitate the disposition of pending matters and come up with innovative solutions to improve caseflow.
“I am grateful we were able to obtain grants from the National Center for State Courts and the Ohio Court Backlog Reduction Program to fund these three positions,” said Akron Municipal Court Administrative/Presiding Judge Annalisa S. Williams. “It is important to all of us at the Akron Municipal Court that we offer access to justice and helpful resources to all parties.
“I am confident that positive solutions will emerge through mediation and educational clinics.”
McGonigle, who started in September 2023, said she believes the new housing program is helping to fill “a huge need” in the community.
“I am really enjoying my new role as mediator, which is designed to help keep residents out of court,” said McGonigle. “The eviction process produces an emotionally charged atmosphere and I believe that when we can get landlords and tenants together in a neutral environment many of these disputes can be worked out.
“Housing is a basic need for everyone so it’s important to work through the issues as quickly as possible.”
A native of Silver Spring, Maryland McGonigle received her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Drexel University in Philadelphia.
She initially handled training, recruiting and consulting for companies overseas, later getting into the construction industry.
“I rehabbed and built new homes,” said McGonigle.
In 2009, she started a commercial playground business, which she owned and managed until the spring of 2022.
“The company focused on playground design, building and sales,” said McGonigle.
Throughout her career, McGonigle, who is married and now has four children and six grandchildren, lived and worked in various regions in the U.S. as well as in China and the Philippines.
In 2019, she earned a Master of Legal Studies from Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. 
She moved to Akron in 2020 and became a certified mediator through the Ohio Supreme Court the following year.
She initially started as a volunteer mediator for the ODR (Online Dispute Resolution) program at Akron Municipal Court in the spring of 2022.
“The ODR platform allows the parties to speak with a mediator providing an opportunity for resolution,” said McGonigle
When the full-time position became available she was hired.
As a mediator, McGonigle facilitates discussions and communication among parties involved in eviction, rent escrow and small claims cases with the goal of resolving the matters without going to court.
“I speak daily with parties, organize mediations, reassign small claims cases for hearings, administer the ODR platform and manage volunteer mediators,” she said. “My role overall is to create a mediation program here at the court and I find it very rewarding.”
Outside of her work as a mediator McGonigle is involved in several local organizations, including serving on the grants committee of the Women’s Endowment Fund of Akron Community Foundation.
Finney began his position as housing specialist/facilitator on Oct. 9, 2023 after spending most of his career in public education.
Born and raised in Akron, he received his bachelor’s degree in education from Alabama State University and earned a master’s degree in public administration from The University of Akron.
Finney taught at three Summit County high schools, later serving as an assistant principal at Goodrich and Perkins Middle schools (both closed). He was also an assistant principal at East Community Learning Center (formerly East High School), where he became head principal in 2015.
The same year, he started the nonprofit organization VAF Community Health and Wellness Foundation, which provides assistance to residents living in the Greater Akron area.
After leaving the education field in 2020, Finney, who owns rental properties in Akron, became a licensed real estate agent.
As housing specialist/facilitator, Finney refers landlords and tenants involved in court proceedings to community organizations with missions related to offering supportive services and financial assistance.
“The housing program provides referrals to people at all stages of the eviction process, including pre-eviction, during and post-eviction.
“I make referrals to people who need to find new housing or temporary shelter,” said Finney.
“Because of my background, I already had connections to groups that offer housing resources when I started,” said Finney. “I am working to expand that network.”
In addition to his work at the court, Finney is a volunteer at West Akron Kiwanis and the Summit Lake Community Center.
“I’ve always given back to the community and this is a wonderful opportunity to make a real difference in many people’s lives,” said Finney.
Brooks started her position as the navigator/bailiff last November.
“I am mostly focused on the customer service aspect of the housing program,” said Brooks. “It is my job to bring the judges’ vision to fruition by flushing out and implementing new processes that make the program more efficient and user-friendly.
“The goal is to reduce homelessness within the community by creating policies that decrease the numbers and address some of the systemic issues.”
The Cleveland native earned her undergraduate degrees in philosophy and political science and her juris doctor from The University of Akron.
During law school, she was an intern at the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office and a certified law clerk for the Summit County Legal Defender’s Office.
“A lot of the work that I did at the legal defender’s office involved working with indigent clients and helping them to have a voice,” said Brooks.
A member of the Akron and Ohio State bar associations and Akron-Canton Barristers, Brooks said she’s “very excited” about her new position.
“I love what I am doing,” said Brooks. “The program is geared toward self-represented landlords and tenants who often don’t understand the process or how to speak up for themselves.
“I am a non-lawyer advocate, so my job is to empower litigants with information so they are aware of their rights,” said Brooks. “My goal is to create a program that many years after I’m gone leaves people--regardless of whether they are tenants or landlords--feeling like the cards are not stacked against them.”