Cleveland May Join Crusade To Increase Eviction Atty Access

By Kevin Penton | August 25, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

Cleveland is the latest in a series of municipalities across the country that are considering — or have already created — a right to counsel for certain individuals who face eviction, a move that advocates hope will prevent housing problems from spawning other economic and health woes for families.

Mirroring efforts in communities such as New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., Cleveland City Council last week introduced a measure that would provide legal representation to individuals facing eviction who are living with children and are below 100 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, said Melanie A. Shakarian, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.

As the legislation is currently drafted, legal assistance would be provided annually for approximately 1,200 cases in Cleveland, according to Shakarian, the organization's director of development and communications. There are between 19,000 and 20,000 evictions annually in Cuyahoga County, about half of which are in Cleveland, she said.

According to the Legal Aid Society, Cleveland would be the first municipality in Ohio and the greater Midwest to adopt an eviction measure.

The organization opted to work on finding a solution to the problem nearly two years ago, recognizing the effects that losing a home can have on individuals' ability to hold down a job, stay healthy, and ensure that their children are receiving a quality education, Shakarian said.

"We've seen what happens when someone's housing is at risk," Shakarian said. "Our wealth of experience has demonstrated to us that a home is truly the center of all things."

Cleveland anticipates that it would spend up to $385,000 hiring attorneys during the first year and up to $600,000 during its fifth year, as word of the service spreads and participation increases, Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley said.

Other costs may be picked up through philanthropy, although those details are still being worked out, he added.

Kelley anticipates that the proposed ordinance will undergo a committee review process in the coming weeks before its final passage in September, with a final signature required from Mayor Frank Jackson, who supports the measure. The program would go into effect in June 2020, he said.

"We really want this to be a success," Kelley said.

The legislation is the brainchild of the Housing Justice Alliance, a coalition of officials from Cleveland City Council, the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association and the Cleveland Academy of Trial Attorneys.

The coalition anticipates that the program would not only provide legal assistance to those facing eviction, but also access to various social services organized by the United Way of Greater Cleveland, which is expected to coordinate the efforts and create a training program for attorneys unfamiliar with housing court regulations, Kelley said.

Cleveland would be the latest in a growing list of communities that have enacted right-to-counsel measures for low-income tenants.

New York City in 2017 was the first community to adopt such a program, and it has spread through all the boroughs.

Tenant representation in the city's housing court has mushroomed since then, increasing from only 1% of individuals having an attorney during fiscal year 2013 to 30 percent of tenants during the last quarter of fiscal year 2018, according to the Community Service Society, a nonprofit that works on poverty issues in New York.

Of the tenants represented by attorneys with the city's Office of Civil Justice through either the right-to-counsel program or other efforts, 84 percent avoided an eviction in fiscal year 2018, according to a report posted on the agency's website.

Earlier this year, legislation was introduced in Philadelphia City Council that would create a permanent legal defense fund for providing pro bono representation to those facing eviction. The city has already spent at least $1.3 million on a pilot program.

Philadelphia's push to establish a right to counsel for low-income tenants follows a Philadelphia Bar Association report released last fall that the city could save about $45 million a year in social services costs in exchange for a $3.5 million annual investment in pro bono representation in landlord-tenant disputes.

Kelley anticipates that the legal representation program will lead Cleveland to experience cost savings in several areas, such as homeless services and reduced busing for the school district. The reductions will not necessarily impact the city's actual bottom line, however, as homeless services, for example, are handled by the county.

"This is an issue of equity and justice," Kelley said. "We need to act in this way now and we'll quantify the savings later. Right now, we need to stabilize our housing situation in Cleveland."

--Additional reporting by Matt Fair. Editing by Peter Rozovsky and Emily Kokoll.

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