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Cleveland Right To Counsel Program Helping Halt Evictions, Provide Aid

The Right to Counsel program has taken on more than 300 cases in its first six months. [Richard Stephen / Shutterstock]
An eviction notice on a hardwood floor.

In its six months so far, Cleveland’s Right to Counsel initiative – which guarantees legal representation for eligible residents facing eviction – has been successful in 93 percent of cases hoping to halt an eviction and provided renters with assistance in even more cases.

The program guarantees legal representation in eviction cases for tenants with children in households earning below a certain income. Despite the federal moratorium on evictions, cases are still being filed, said Legal Aid Society of Cleveland Executive Director Colleen Cotter, and the program launched in July 2020.

“The thing that’s important to remember about the moratorium is it is not an absolute ban on evictions. It provides a defense for some tenants,” Cotter said. “But landlords are still able to file eviction cases, and they are.”

Volunteers and attorneys with the Legal Aid Society and United Way of Greater Cleveland work with residents to prevent eviction, as well as provide additional time to move, dealt with utility connection problems, and recovering security deposits.

“We really didn’t totally know what to expect in launching this program,” Cotter said. “This is unlike anything we’ve done before, where we’re taking on all cases without any analysis of, is there a ‘defense’ to this?”

Most of the 300 cases the program has taken on so far have involved tenants who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and are struggling to pay rent, Cotter said. But she said there are also cases of retaliatory evictions, as well as situations where a landlord refuses to accept rent payment or rental assistance funds.

Nearly 70 cases sought to halt the eviction or involuntary move. Of those, 93 percent succeeded, Cotter said.

“That’s way more than we had even anticipated,” Cotter said. “It bodes well for the future, for the next six months and the six months after that, which is good because we have a lot ahead of us, given the pandemic.”

When federal moratoriums come to an end March 31, housing advocates are still anticipating a spike in evictions, Cotter said. But the Cleveland program, which includes staff attorneys, contracted attorneys and volunteers, will expand to meet the need, she said.

“We designed the system from the beginning to be flexible, so we can expand the resources we have available as the need increases,” Cotter said.

Pandemic aid, such as rental assistance provided by local and federal government agencies, has helped to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus on housing, Cotter said. Those continued efforts are needed to avoid a “cliff,” she said, so residents are not facing insurmountable bills at the end of the moratorium due to months of accumulating unpaid rent.

“We think the increase is going to be pretty significant, more significant than we anticipated,” Cotter said. “In order to really stabilize the community, we’re hopeful that rental assistance will continue. It’s been critically important for tenants, for landlords, and at the end for communities.”

Landlords also have positive feedback on the program, Cotter said. Getting connected with financial assistance benefits both the tenant and the property owner, she said, and ensures the mortgage gets paid.

“We’ve been able to help the tenant access rental assistance to make the landlord whole,” Cotter said. “They’re willing to work with the tenants. It’s a happy ending for everybody, if the system works.”

As of December 2020, more than 11,000 Cuyahoga County residents had applied for pandemic-related rental assistance, according to the United Way of Greater Cleveland. In an average year, Cuyahoga County sees about 20,000 evictions, said Nancy Mendez, the nonprofit's vice president of community investment and chief community investment officer, with about 9,000 of them in Cleveland.

“I think that speaks to a long-term conversation we need to have as a community, that this COVID crisis has really highlighted the devastation of eviction,” Mendez said. “When we come back to some kind of normal, after COVID-19, are we going to be okay with 9,000 families continuing to be evicted in Cleveland?”

While federal and local assistance has helped to combat some of the pandemic’s impact, she said, many families are still facing financial uncertainty.

“Right now, we still have 76,000 families at risk for eviction in Cuyahoga County alone,” Mendez said. “We are still dealing with a crisis here that, thankfully, there are programs like Right to Counsel. But also, the moratorium has played a role in keeping this from bubbling out of control.”

Keeping families in their homes is better for mental and physical health, Mendez said, and it’s better to have that stability within the community.

“Because of the health crisis, we understand the importance of a home right now,” Mendez said. “But I would love to have the long-term conversation that this shouldn’t be acceptable at any point.”