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Cleveland's right-to-counsel program is successful but seeking stable funding

Evictions in Cleveland are expected to increase now that a federal moratorium has ended and COVID relief spending is nearing an end. [Slava Dumchev / Shutterstock]
eviction notice on a wood door

Cleveland's right-to-counsel law is transforming the legal eviction process, a consultant told Cleveland City Council Monday.

“Approximately 60 percent of eligible households in Cleveland who are facing eviction were represented in 2021. Sixty percent,” said Neil Steinkamp from the New York-based consulting firm Stout, who presented a yearly report on the program. “Prior to right-to-counsel, that was around 1 or 2 percent.”

Under the law passed by council in late 2019, any Cleveland renter facing eviction whose income is below the poverty line and has a child in the house is guaranteed a lawyer to fight their eviction. The law went into effect in July 2020.

At a finance committee meeting Monday, City councilmembers learned about the promising results of the program so far.

According to the consultant's report, the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, which provides the lawyers for the program, were able to prevent eviction for 93 percent of right-to-counsel clients who wanted that outcome. And for those seeking rental assistance, they were able to secure it for 83 percent of those clients.

But Legal Aid Executive Director Colleen Cotter told city council that Cleveland will need to provide more money from the general fund budget to keep the program going.

Cotter said Legal Aid's budget for the program in 2021 was $2.7 million. Cleveland set aside $300,000 to help pay for counsel in 2021 and 2022. The gap was made up with philanthropic support and federal grants.

“You know you can’t count on that each and every year,” United Way of Greater Cleveland President August Napoli said. “We want to stay focused on what the city can do through city council and through the budget.”

Cotter expects the number of people who qualify for the program to go up this year. A federal moratorium on evictions ended in September. And Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, the largest source of cases in Cleveland, did not start any evictions in 2021.

She estimated it would cost $3.3 million to run the program in 2022.

“We’re prepared to do more and serve a larger population,” Cotter said. “We need the financial commitment from the city to make that happen.”

Councilmembers were noncommital on seeking increased funding for the program. 

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.