Right to counsel offers justice for Cleveland's low-income renters

Eviction devastates families, tearing them from homes and disrupting entire communities. Cuyahoga County records 20,000 evictions annually, with 9,000 occurring within the city of Cleveland, according to the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.

Despite the chaos that eviction causes, most tenants facing ouster are not represented by legal counsel. That circumstance changes July 1, when recently passed legislation guaranteeing eviction representation for low-income Cleveland tenants with children officially begins.

The effort, a public-private partnership among Cleveland City Council, Legal Aid, United Way of Greater Cleveland and Legal Aid’s Housing Justice Alliance, is lauded by planners as the first of its kind in Ohio and across the Midwest. Before the new law’s passage, only 1% to 2% of tenants had legal representation at Cleveland Housing Court, compared with 75% of landlords, say Legal Aid officials. About 75% of Cleveland tenants facing eviction are women; 70% are black.

“People watch TV crime shows and see right to attorney in criminal cases, but they forget we have a split judicial system,” says Legal Aid director of development Melanie Shakarian. “There’s no comparable right on the civil side. Real inequity happens in our system when people are losing their housing in two or three minutes in court.”

The Cleveland Eviction Study - Case Western Reserve University

An early March visit to housing court—on the third floor of the sprawling Cleveland Municipal Court facility downtown—highlights the complexities of the current eviction structure. On this particular morning, a magistrate oversees an assembly line of landlords—many of them accompanied by attorneys—aggrieved over months-late rental payments and other infractions.

Very few tenants show up for their hearing, and the few who do fly solo.

One is “Amanda,” who asked to remain anonymous so as not to affect her professional prospects. Amanda says she’s being asked to leave her Cleveland duplex by a new landlord in the process of buying the building. The previous property manager had taken Amanda to court for late payment, a situation exacerbated by a lengthy hospital stay following a car accident.

Though currently housed, Amanda has moved some of her possessions to storage while relying on her family for support. Despite her situation, the mother of two knows she’s lucky, considering many others in her position would be sleeping in a homeless shelter or their car. However, she also believes every tenant should have an expert present to navigate them through Cleveland’s housing eviction quagmire.

“It’s unfair for people to get forced out of their homes,” Amanda says. “Women with kids should have a right to an attorney when they can’t afford it.”

A viable legal intervention

Cleveland’s right to counsel law specifies that families at or below 100% federal poverty guidelines—roughly $26,000 in annual income for a family of four—will be entitled to legal representation when facing eviction. Eligibility includes at least one child in the household, though Legal Aid will attempt to broaden the program’s scope as it evolves.

Abigail Staudt, managing attorney of the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland’s housing practice group.“When possible, Legal Aid will represent renters above the 100% threshold, households with no children and households outside of the city of Cleveland,” says Abigail Staudt, managing attorney of the organization’s housing practice group, in an email to FreshWater Cleveland.

Legal Aid plans to hire 10 full-time attorneys and three paralegals to work specifically on right to counsel housing cases. Based on past court data, the program will assist an estimated 3,000 low-income Cleveland renters in avoiding housing displacement annually.

A review of Cleveland Housing Court by Case Western Reserve University pointed to substandard residential conditions—water leakage, mold, vermin and more—that lead to eviction. Ideally, proper legal intervention will underline these issues immediately, offering a viable defense that most tenants don’t know can apply to them. Assistance with landlord-tenant relationships is another potential benefit of the emerging program, Shakarian says.

Legal Aid defined five main outcomes for the larger project, including a decrease in housing displacement, fewer eviction filings, and long-term improvement of Cleveland’s aging housing stock.

“People represented under this law didn’t have an attorney by their side at all previously,” says Shakarian. “We’re planning for implementation and looking forward to working with the court and our other partners.”

Cleveland became the fourth city in the U.S. to pass a right to counsel law, followed by Philadelphia in November. Other cities enacting the legislation delegated program management to a city department (San Francisco) or created an entirely new program (New York City). Legal Aid’s public-private approach is distinctive, officials say, in designating United Way as project manager.  In this role, United Way will refer tenants to its 2-1-1 help line alongside additional wraparound housing services.

“The research is well-documented that housing stability is critical to stable employment, academic success for children as well as mental and physical health,” says Nancy Mendez, United Way vice president of community impact, in an email. “We’re in this for the long term because the impact of housing instability is generational. It’s a root cause of poverty, and you can’t solve housing instability overnight.”

Chris Knestrick, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, says half the families in Cleveland’s shelter system arrive after eviction.Filling in the gaps

Cleveland’s right to counsel effort derives from Legal Aid’s Housing Justice Alliance, a group formed by supervising attorney Hazel Remesch as part of a fellowship with the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland and the Cleveland Leadership Center.

Former Cleveland councilman Jim Rokakis helped develop the city’s housing court in the late 1970s, making a half dozen trips to Columbus to advocate for the entity’s creation. Rokakis, today serving as vice president of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, says housing court is crucial for a city with housing stock in desperate need of upkeep. Right to counsel ensures a level playing field for residents encountering any number of tenancy and housing issues.

“These are people behind the proverbial eight-ball in life, who may be dealing with multiple problems at once,” Rokakis says. “There can be circumstances for reciprocity on the part of the landlord to keep that tenant.”

The new law fills a chasm left by the Cleveland Tenants Organization, a nonprofit that championed renters for 40 years before disbanding in 2018 due to a lack of funding. As a member of Cleveland City Council, Rokakis had a jaded view of renters, a viewpoint softened through contact with the population as well as reading Matthew Desmond’s seminal book on the topic—“Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.”

“We demonized these people while still promoting the virtues of home ownership,” says Rokakis. “My eyes were opened on how devastating eviction can be on individuals and families.”

Per the CWRU housing court study, eviction disproportionately impacts poor African-American women with children. For kids, eviction results in higher rates of school absenteeism, along with greater risk of lead poisoning than other low-income children in Cleveland.

Chris Knestrick, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, says half the families in the city’s shelter system arrive after eviction. Right to counsel has the opportunity to ease the burden on shelters, while providing a much-needed resource to citizens who otherwise have no legal protections.

“The fewer people who become homeless, the fewer people who will need sheltering,” says Knestrick. “Hopefully we can dream bigger and make representation available to anyone going into housing court.”

Legal Aid is planning on expanding the project’s geographic reach beyond Cleveland to Ashtabula, Geauga, Lake and Lorain counties. Though the project is still in its early days, right to counsel’s benefactors are optimistic the effort will correct the imbalance in landlord-tenant courts.

“It all amounts to toxic stress of unusable housing,” says Shakarian. “As we pay more attention to the effects of this stress on individuals, we can agree how important housing stability is to fighting poverty.”

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.   
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