Cleveland is one of seven cities in the U.S. that has enacted a right to counsel program that provides free legal representation to tenants facing eviction. Early statistics from the program’s first year of operation show promising results – dozens of evictions prevented despite a federal moratorium on evictions – but what will happen when that moratorium ends?
East Side Cleveland resident Dennis Eads ran into some trouble paying rent last year. Eads, a father of five, said he was thankful to have kept his job at a warehouse in the Cleveland area despite the pandemic. But, some of his children got sick, which meant he couldn’t go to work.
“I had to quarantine at the house; I couldn’t go outside, couldn’t go to work, couldn’t get paid,” he said.
That on top of his own medical issues meant Eads fell behind on his rent. He was still recovering financially and physically from being shot in the head when he lived in Columbus in 2018. He was homeless for a brief stretch after that happened.
When Eads didn’t pay his rent, it put his landlord, Karen Polk, in an awkward position, she said in a separate interview. Polk, an Oakwood Village resident who owns about a dozen rental properties, said she had not received rent from Eads for several months late last year.
So, she filed an eviction claim against him.
When Eads showed up to Cleveland Housing Court, he met Lauren Hamilton, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland. After being screened (there are two legal aid attorneys present during most hearings), Hamilton told Eads he qualified for free legal representation under Cleveland’s Right to Counsel program, operated by Legal Aid and the United Way of Greater Cleveland.
Right to counsel (RTC) programs like the one in Cleveland are trying to solve a significant issue in the US: tenants often do not have legal representation in eviction cases, typically because they cannot afford it. Without a decent legal defense, judges are more likely to grant the eviction against the tenant. And when a person is evicted, there are cascading negative effects on their health, economic wellbeing and for society at large.
Only 2% of tenants had legal representation on average in Cleveland Housing Court before the RTC program, Legal Aid Executive Director Colleen Cotter said during a recent Cleveland City Council finance committee meeting. Now about 20 percent of these tenants have had access to a lawyer since RTC started in July 2020. Polk, Eads’ landlord, said she didn’t want to file the eviction; she grew up in inner-city Cleveland seeing her neighbors struggle, so she understood Eads’ plight. But she said she had her own financial struggles during the pandemic.
Plus, she had a tough time getting in contact with Eads while navigating assistance programs he had applied for, which required the landlord’s participation. Meanwhile, Eads said he thought Polk had received rental assistance payments on his behalf – he had applied to both the county-run state PRC program and Cleveland nonprofit CHN (Cleveland Housing Network) Housing Partners – to bridge the missed rent. He said he wasn’t sure why she hadn’t received that money.
“I really tried my best to work with the tenant because I understand hardships but I also understand when people are trying to take advantage of you as well,” Polk said, although she said she later learned that wasn’t the case with Eads.
Polk said she was initially upset that her tenant was assigned a lawyer because she was representing herself. It also meant the case would be continued. More time with no paid rent paid, she thought.
But when she called Hamilton to vent her frustration, the two discovered paperwork for Eads’ rental aid application was incomplete. Hamilton called the Cleveland Housing Network, with whom Legal Aid works closely, and within a few hours, Polk received an email confirming the rental aid money was coming.
“I was surprised,” she said. “I thanked her for doing what she was doing. She went over and beyond most attorneys in my mind. From what I knew, they represent the actual tenant and they could care less about the landlord.”
She said she thought it was a “win-win” for both her and Eads. She and Eads also both said they’re now communicating better with each other thanks to mediation from Hamilton.
Melanie Shakarian, a Legal Aid spokesperson, said the RTC program has been especially effective because it’s paired with rental assistance, providing a good avenue to encourage landlords to drop their eviction cases even if the tenant missed months of rent payments. About $30 million in rental aid has gone out to struggling tenants since last year, CHN spokesperson Laura Boustani said, and the average aid needed per tenant in Cuyahoga County was about $6,200 as of earlier this month.
However, Hamilton cautioned that the rental assistance is mostly a “Band-Aid” for people who are struggling.
“It’s really important to have that conversation with the tenants about, “‘how are you going to be able to stay on track once this assistance is no longer here?’” she explained.
She added that Legal Aid serves as a referral agency and can connect people in the RTC program to other social services they might need.
Signs of success
Cleveland’s program has seen a lot of use since its inception last July. Statistics provided by the Legal Aid Society show that Legal Aid’s 10 RTC attorneys had taken on about 380 cases in Cleveland Housing Court between July and Dec. 31, 2020. That number likely would be higher had the federal government not enacted a moratorium on evictions because of COVID-19, a temporary halt set to expire on July 31.
Still, the RTC program is showing early signs of success, according to an interim report on the program’s success released in February. About 93% of the RTC clients who faced an eviction or involuntary move were able to avoid being displaced because of the legal representation they received.
Other cities with right to counsel programs in the U.S. have 75 to 85% success rates on this metric, according to the report. Meanwhile, since a right to counsel program was implemented in New York City in 2017, 84% of represented tenants facing evictions were able to remain in their home, while the eviction rate declined by about 30 percent, according to a report from NYC’s Office of Civil Justice.
There were 2,341 eviction cases that were filed in Cleveland in the second half of 2020 (there was double that number during the same time in 2019). Of those 2,341 cases:
Shakarian estimated that about a third of those evictions were filed against a defendant who would be eligible for RTC, about 780 people.
About half of those defendants received legal representation (48.7%, or 380 people). Before RTC, only a tiny proportion of those people would have had legal representation, Shakarian said.
There are plenty of other notable outcomes of the program so far, according to the interim report: 83% of the RTC clients who were seeking more time to move out received that help; 50% of the clients seeking to remedy bad conditions in their rentals were able to do so; and an overwhelming 71 percent of cases represented were Black Clevelanders, who disproportionately face the threat of eviction.
But there are limits to the Cleveland RTC program’s efficacy, and it’s hard to measure its exact success rate due to the eviction moratorium, and the fact that the program got started during a pandemic.
As far as the limits go, it’s only available to people living in Cleveland who have children in the household and earn at or below the federal poverty line, or $21,720 per year for a family of three. This means there are significant groups of the population who aren’t eligible, excluding about 62% of tenants who typically show up to Cleveland’s Housing Court, according to the interim report.
As of the program’s first six months, 1,600 people contacted the Legal Aid Society to ask about RTC services, per the interim report. Only about 320 cases, though, were taken on through the RTC program during that time. Hazel Remesch, supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society, said that expanding who is eligible for the program is “critical.” But that will require additional funding.
“There are so many households who, because of the pandemic, are now housing unstable,” she said.
While it’s not a true RTC program, Cuyahoga County did provide $1 million to Legal Aid earlier this year from federal COVID relief funds to pay for free legal representation for people living in the county who face eviction and are below 200% of the poverty line. Shakarian said this new funding came after county officials saw the early success of RTC.
Fighting for tenants’ rights
Things seemed okay after Denesha Moses moved to a new apartment in Cleveland in late 2019 with the help of a federal Section 8 Housing Choice voucher. Then, she started noticing problems in the apartment. First, she spotted rodents. Several months later, she fell through her basement stairs after a weak step gave way beneath her.
Moses said her landlord did little to resolve these problems.
So, she got a dog to help with the rodents. When she complained about the stairs, she said the landlord had a contractor nail the same faulty step back onto the basement stairs.
After reporting the lack of response to the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority in Cleveland, which runs the voucher program locally, Moses said CMHA was set to cut its funding for the home and move her out.
Then, the landlord filed an eviction claim against her.
“They said they were going to stop payment, and through the program, I was going to have to have an emergency move,” she said. “From that point on, it was no holds barred (with the landlord); he was upset and he went through with an eviction.”
In a panic, Moses turned to the Legal Aid, and found she was eligible for the RTC program.
She was also assigned to Legal Aid’s Hamilton, who helped her through several months of tense back-and-forth negotiations with the landlord. Ultimately, the landlord agreed to drop his claims and Moses moved out, preventing the black mark of an eviction on her record.
Although she thought about seeking monetary damages through a counterclaim they had filed, Moses said she was happy with this resolution.
“Better landlord, better conditions, the area is better, the atmosphere is better,” Moses said of her new rental home. “On the whole… I’d take it as a complete plus.”
Moses’ former landlord, Bradley Howard, denied any wrongdoing through Cleveland attorney Donald Williams, with Williams arguing that his client filed the eviction against Moses for having a pitbull dog, in violation of her lease. He also said the basement stairs were in “good repair” and said Howard had received no reports of rodents in the rental unit.
Trouble on the horizon
With the federal moratorium on evictions set to end soon, Legal Aid staff warned Cleveland City Council members during a late May finance committee meeting that the caseload they’re seeing with the RTC program could increase significantly. The interim Cleveland RTC report suggested that eviction rates might be five times higher than Cleveland’s annual average, which is typically around 9,000 per year.
Meanwhile, it’s not cheap to keep the program going. United Way spokesperson Katie Connell said it costs about $2.4 million per year. Cleveland City Council is providing $300,000 per-year to fund the program, while philanthropies cover the lion’s share of funding. Legal Aid’s Shakarian said this kind of model is “unique” among cities with Right to Counsel programs, with most funding for those other programs typically coming from government sources rather than private.
Further funding will be needed in Cleveland, the report adds, especially if the number of evictions increases, or if the program expands its eligibility requirement to serve more people. According to an estimate in that report, for every 110 new evictions filed per year in Cleveland, Legal Aid would need to hire one new attorney at an average cost of $120,000 per year per attorney.
But the return on investment is significant, the interim report argues. According to a 2018 assessment by Stout Risius Ross LLC, the same company that conducted the interim report in Cleveland, the city of Philadelphia was expected to avoid an estimated $45.2 million in costs annually after implementing a similar RTC program. Those savings come from avoiding displacement of tenants through eviction, which can cause lost jobs and thereby lost tax revenue, increased cost of operating homeless shelters, increased usage of public benefits, and poorer performance for children in schools, among other drains on public dollars.
Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley lauded the program’s success during the finance committee meeting, and said he thinks the Council would support expanding it.
“I think we all would like to expand the criteria,” he said. “What other funding partners are out there that we can rely on to have less restrictive criteria for who qualifies? What can we do to open up the criteria? Those are my thoughts going forward on what we need to do to continue the success this program has had.”
Absent from the Council members during the meeting, however, was any promise to increase funding for the program.
This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including The Land. Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America. You can email him at [email protected].