Cleveland Considers Free Legal Help For Low-Income Tenants

A street in Cleveland's Hough neighborhood photographed in 2017.
A street in Cleveland's Hough neighborhood in 2017. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

Low-income tenants with children would receive free legal help in eviction cases under a measure introduced Wednesday in Cleveland City Council.

Currently, lawyers represent only a small percentage of tenants facing eviction in Cleveland Housing Court, according to Legal Aid Society attorneys who have been working with council on the proposal.

“It goes to the fundamental issue of housing stability in the community,” Council President Kevin Kelley said. “When you look at what is destabilizing community, a lot of times it’s if somebody’s evicted, and they have children, the child’s school is going to be interrupted.”

The median tenant facing eviction in Cleveland owes $925 in unpaid rent, according to a Case Western Reserve University study prepared for city council and Legal Aid. High school absences increase after eviction, the study found, and families tend to move to more distressed neighborhoods.

“We believe that all of our community efforts to feed, to employ, to make sure that our children are going to school, are really in vain if there isn’t stable housing,” Legal Aid attorney Hazel Remesch told city council in March.

The legislation would cover renters with children who live at or below the federal poverty level. Attorneys could negotiate a “softer landing” so that families’ jobs and education aren’t thrown into disarray by eviction, Kelley said.

The ordinance introduced Wednesday would not allocate any money and Kelley said the costs may vary over time,  depending on the size of the caseload. While the city would pitch in for legal costs, he said, the United Way of Greater Cleveland would also take on expenses as part of its housing stability work.

“Any funds that the city expends goes directly to the representation,” Kelley said, “and as little as possible to overhead, and to training, and to management, and to everything else that it’s going to take to build this program.”

The effort will need more than money. Right now there aren’t enough attorneys trained to handle housing cases, Kelley said. He said Legal Aid, the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association and Cleveland Marshall College of Law would help prepare lawyers for the program.

Council, Legal Aid and other organizations have worked together on the plans as part of a group called the Housing Justice Alliance. If passed, the ordinance would take effect June 30 next year.

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