Inspiring Outcomes from First 6 Months of Cleveland’s Right to Counsel

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By Danilo Powell-Lima

In Cuyahoga County, 36% of people spend more than a third of their total income on housing costs. Cleveland ranks second in the nation for the percentage of working-age adults living in poverty, according to a 2019 U.S. Census Bureau Report.

With income levels so low, it’s no surprise that even before COVID-19, Cleveland tenants struggled to protect their housing. Nearly 9,000 evictions are filed in the city each year. Cleveland Housing Court hearings typically last under five minutes, and just 1% – 2% of tenants attend their hearing with an attorney. Common outcomes for people who experience eviction include:

  • Homelessness
  • Job loss
  • Chronic absence from school (for children)

One way the justice system can help people protect their housing is by treating eviction cases with the same seriousness it treats criminal cases. We’re all familiar with the Miranda rights from television crime shows: “You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.” Tenants who are at risk of losing their homes in court should also have free access to an attorney. In Cleveland, a new law that took effect in July of 2020 does just that.

Cleveland is the fourth city in the country and the first in the Midwest to enact “Right to Counsel” (RTC) legislation for housing cases. New York City was the first, in 2017; just one year later, 84% of tenants provided with a lawyer remained home, according to New York City’s Office of Civil Justice. Cleveland’s law currently applies to families with children who earn at or below 100% of federal poverty guidelines. Legal Aid is the official legal service provider for eligible tenants.

Cleveland’s RTC law was signed in the fall of 2019 – before COVID-19 was on anyone’s radar. Given the pandemic’s devastating economic impact, keeping families home and safe is more important than ever before. With more than six months of data collected, RTC Cleveland has demonstrated tremendous outcomes. For cases closed between July 1st and December 31st:

  • 93% of Legal Aid RTC clients seeking to avoid eviction or involuntary move remained home,
  • 83% of Legal Aid RTC clients seeking more time to move (30 days or more) were able to get more time, and
  • 133 children under the age of 18 have already avoided the trauma of disruptive housing displacement as their cases were successfully closed.

Are you or is someone you know facing eviction in Cleveland? Visit FreeEvictionHelp.org to learn more about the RTC program, or call 216-687-1900.

Reminder: the CDC Eviction Moratorium is still in effect. This is a moratorium on evictions, not a moratorium on rent payments. Tenants facing eviction are protected, but not automatically; they must show they qualify for the moratorium and request its protection. For more information, visit https://lasclev.org/cdc-eviction-moratorium.

If you are struggling with another civil legal issue and think you may need legal assistance, contact Legal Aid. Our toll-free number is 888-817-3777. You can also reach Legal Aid online by visiting lasclev.org/contact.