As Cleveland’s housing courts resume eviction hearings that were paused due to COVID-19, low-income tenants are finding equal legal footing with their landlords thanks to a public-private partnership between United Way of Greater Cleveland, the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland and the city of Cleveland.
Right to Counsel-Cleveland provides access to free legal counsel to eligible renters living at or below the federal poverty line with at least one minor child in the home. In September, Cleveland City Council passed legislation mandating this access.
According to a 2019 study conducted at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), 60 percent of the approximately 9,000 evictions filed each year in Cleveland are households with children. Among the eviction hearings included in the study, only 1 percent of tenants had attorneys compared to nearly 66 percent of landlords.
Right to Counsel-Cleveland addresses this disparity. It is based on a model that has proven successful in other U.S. cities. In New York City, for example, 84 percent of the renters with a Right to Counsel attorney were able to stay in their homes during 2018.
The initiative is part of United Way’s Impact Institute, a new branch of the organization that its leaders refer to as “a think tank with an action plan.”
Nancy Mendez, vice president of community impact, says the timing of the rollout is fortunate because of the uptick in evictions due to job loss caused by COVID-19. She says the economic downturn has been especially devastating to Cleveland’s renters.
“Eviction triggers a black hole of poverty — people go deeper and deeper into the poverty hole,” says Mendez. “Unstable housing can lead to homelessness, which impacts school attendance, health and life quality outcomes for children and families.”
She points out that the CWRU study also found that children whose families get evicted have a school absence rate of 30 percent — much higher than Ohio’s definition of “chronic absence,” which is 10 percent.
Mendez says that landlords who struggle financially when rent payments are missed can also benefit from the chance to resolve disputes with their renters.
“Different boat — same storm,” she says. “A large number of the landlords are mom-and-pop renters who would rather retain their current tenants than go through court and then have to find new tenants.”
Abigail Staudt, managing attorney of Legal Aid’s Housing Law Practice, explains how her team will connect with clients.
“When an eviction is filed by a landlord, a summons goes to the tenant with the complaint,” she says. “There will be an insert telling the renter that you may be eligible for representation and to call Legal Aid. If potential clients are determined eligible, they will be assigned an attorney.”
Staudt anticipates high demand moving forward, especially because there was already a backlog of about 1,000 cases when the courts reopened in June.
“It comes down to so many variables — the relationship between tenant and landlord is a big one,” she says. “Communication is a large factor, but there are so many factors.”
Whatever comes its way, Staudt says that Legal Aid is ready. The company has hired five new attorneys and moved some of its current staff to the Right to Counsel team. In turn, United Way also has hired a staff person to manage its portion of the program and work with Legal Aid and the courts.
With $3 million already committed to the effort by United Way, the partners still need to secure an additional $4 million for the program’s projected $7 million price tag.
In addition to raising money, United Way also is charged with community education and helping connect tenants with so-called wraparound services, such as assistance with food and utilities. Data collection and evaluation also will be an important part of United Way’s role.
“The best way we can attract new dollars is to evaluate and show our concrete results — a return on investment,” explains Mendez.
Housing Stability is a priority for United Way’s Impact Institute. To that end, the team is a major collaborator in the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition, which is another large public-private partnership. The goal of this effort is to identify aging homes in Cleveland where children are at risk of inhaling or ingesting toxic lead. This exposure can cause developmental, learning and behavior problems, just to name a few. Violators will be required to make improvements and show that the home meets lead-safe standards by 2023.
The Impact Institute is rolling out other projects aimed at tackling the root causes of poverty, as well. Mendez says that health care and education-related efforts are in the works.
“For many years, United Way did responsive grant making, which addressed the symptoms of poverty,” she says. “But through needs assessments, we could see that things like poverty and unemployment didn’t change. If we want to disrupt and break the cycle of poverty, we need to take risks and do things in a different way. We must change our model.”
That model evolved into the Impact Institute, which was established to take a more strategic approach to achieving these far-reaching goals.
“While we are not walking away from the basic needs like providing food, we can’t make change by just funding symptoms of poverty,” she adds. “The Impact Institute will address the reasons why families are stuck in this cycle.”
Mendez says United Way will continue to look to proven models like Right to Counsel and to forming other collaborative opportunities that maximize limited resources.
Legal Aid’s Staudt also expects to see positive change from the Right to Counsel program.
“This is a huge step for Cleveland,” she says. “The timing is incredible given COVID-19. We expect to help a lot of people remain stably housed because of it.”