Right to Counsel-Cleveland Proves What Collaboration Across Cleveland’s Public and Private Sectors Can Achieve

Some say that Cleveland is the biggest small town in the US and the nonprofit community, which is most certainly the case. Through a shared interest in advocacy, our paths crossed in 2017 when Hazel Remesch, Managing Attorney at The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, was working to establish a Right to Counsel (RTC) in eviction cases in Cleveland, and I was working for Cuyahoga County in Community Development. Now, in 2022, we find ourselves back in the same rooms — albeit often virtual– focused again on preventing unnecessary evictions and keeping people safe and stable in their homes.

Hazel started the RTC project after winning a seed grant from the Sisters of Charity Foundation. With this funding, she created Legal Aid’s Housing Justice Alliance, a group focused on helping people avoid eviction by establishing a right to free, high-quality civil legal counsel in eviction cases. Much like other community advocates, I saw the importance of the work and eagerly joined the effort.

Hazel researched the landscape of evictions in Cleveland and crafted a strategy to demonstrate the potential impact of a Right to Counsel in the city’s housing court. With help from Case Western Reserve University researchers, Hazel and the Housing Justice Alliance put together a strong campaign for such a law.

In the fall of 2019, Cleveland City Council passed RTC legislation. The law took effect in July 2020 and is already having a positive impact on tenants who receive representation and landlords who receive rental assistance, thanks to Legal Aid’s involvement in a case. The City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County have also benefitted from net cost savings due to RTC.

Before RTC, only 1-2% of tenants facing eviction were represented in housing court, but that representation rate increased to 18% in just 18 months.

RTC levels the playing field, creating access to justice and efficiencies in court. It is about equal access to the power of the law, dignity, and doing what we can as a community to protect people’s most basic human right: shelter.

RTC also addresses issues of poor-quality housing stock in Cleveland. When working as the Deputy Director of Housing and Community Development for Cuyahoga County, I knew that housing stock and conditions were a problem in rental units. I received many calls from residents seeking resources for home repairs, and many of the callers were Black single mothers. If homes aren’t properly maintained, that often leads to the demolition of needed housing stock, further tightening the rental market for those with low incomes and increasing housing insecurity.

Cleveland’s RTC – only the fourth such law in the nation- came when Clevelanders needed it the most. The pandemic led to several quick policy changes that impacted housing stability. As a result of federal eviction moratoria, our local housing authority not filing evictions, and an abundance of rental assistance, we saw a significant decrease in the number of evictions filed each month. Now, moratoria have ended, and other protections, including rent assistance, are fading away, but the rate of eviction filings is creeping up. The threat of housing insecurity looms large for far too many of our neighbors in Cleveland and throughout Cuyahoga County.

Eviction-prevention work is critical right now and will continue to be important in the near future as the economy has been slow to return to its pre-pandemic levels. Luckily, the partnership between Legal Aid and United Way has brought other agencies together to voice a collective call for more rental assistance and increased tenant protections.

Through the RTC program, our respective organizations are calling attention to two longstanding issues in Cleveland: access to justice and housing stability. We want to keep people stably housed.

Legal Aid and United Way are committed to supporting families beyond a single generation. Long-term impacts related to public health, economic stability at the family and community level, and housing wellness are key RTC objectives.

The Housing Stability strategy rests on decreasing homelessness and keeping family homes safe.

The 2021 RTC report demonstrated progress toward both organizations’ overall goals and objectives.

For instance, the RTC program:

  • Highlighted conditions in homes that impact the health and safety of the families who live within them;
  • Prevented unstable moves entries to shelter;
  • Reduced the number of moves in Cleveland;
    • Transient families increase the likelihood of threats to the family’s safety, which results in Adverse Childhood Experiences that affect their mental and physical well-being.
  • And it has impacted over 1,300 children.
    • We know that frequent moves and housing instability lead to chronic absenteeism in school with drastic, adverse outcomes.

The RTC program needs more significant investment and expanded eligibility to continue moving forward, which means protecting renters’ rights and making the housing court process more efficient while saving the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County millions of dollars annually.

Cleveland City Council recognized the successful outcomes of RTC and the need for greater investment. On March 21, 2022, the City of Cleveland passed the new budget, including an increase in their RTC investment of $200,000 for a total investment of $500,000 this year.

We commend and thank Cleveland City Council, Cleveland City Council President Blaine Griffin, and Mayor Justin Bibb for electing to increase this year’s RTC funding allocation.

Earlier this year, United Way, Legal Aid, and independent firm Stout presented the full-year 2021 RTC report, including results achieved, to Cleveland City Council’s Finance Committee. Through RTC, 93% of eligible Cleveland residents represented by a Legal Aid attorney were able to avoid an eviction judgment or involuntary move. Cleveland City Council members are well informed about the RTC program and its impressive results.

RTC is proven effective in helping Cleveland families facing eviction who live at or below the federal poverty line. This additional $200,000 investment by Cleveland City Council represents a well-thought-out decision to continue to support those most at risk of eviction in Cleveland – primarily Black mothers with children.

Naturally, we will continue our fundraising efforts across the public and private sectors on behalf of RTC to assist those who need our help in avoiding eviction or involuntary moves.

We will continue to work together to make free legal representation a right for even more vulnerable tenants across Cleveland and possibly beyond. We are confident that the strong relationships we’ve built together within our tight-knit community will make this a reality.

Clevelanders facing eviction and seeking assistance are encouraged to call United Way of Greater Cleveland’s 211 for help or visit freeevictionhelp.org.

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