Posted February 5, 20214:36 pm
Hundreds of people avoided eviction during the coronavirus pandemic, thanks in part to a Cleveland program that provides lawyers to eligible tenants with pending housing court cases, according to the organizations that run the program.
The report released this week by the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland and the United Way of Greater Cleveland touts what they see as successes in the first six months of the program, which began July 1. To them, the program was one reason Cleveland did not see as many evictions as feared when the pandemic struck in full force in March 2020.
But it also said the program, paid for by money from the city budget, grants and donations from the philanthropic community, still misses large segments of the population who continue to live under the threat of losing their homes.
“Now that we know that it’s working in COVID, I can’t wait to see, as things return to or move to whatever a new typical is, how it continues to work and impact this community,” United Way’s Director of Basic Needs Andrew Katusin said.
Cleveland City Council established the program in 2019, providing a lawyer at no cost to people facing eviction if they are at or below the federal poverty level – $21,720 annually for a family to three – and have at least one child living with them. Legal Aid hired more attorneys and contracted with others for the program, according to the report.
The report said the lawyers helped tenants in 323 Cleveland Housing Court cases through the program between July 1 and Dec. 31. That’s out of 1,600 who reached out to inquire about the right-to-counsel program.
Of those, Legal Aid said it helped 63 clients who wanted to avoid an eviction on their record or a forced removal from a home to achieve that. That’s 93% of the clients who wanted that outcome, according to the report. Another 33 clients seeking 30 days or more to move received that as well, according to the report.
The program formed before the coronavirus pandemic led millions of people in Cleveland and the rest of the country to lose their jobs and forced the courts and other organizations to conduct work virtually instead of person.
It also created new responsibilities for the lawyers. The federal government enacted a moratorium on evictions for people who can’t pay rent due to the pandemic and allocated money for rental assistance for struggling tenants to pay their landlords. CHN Housing Partners and Eden Inc. run those programs in Cuyahoga County, and the report said more than 11,000 people in the county who claimed to have lost an aggregated $148 million in income applied for assistance as of December.
The report said attorneys have helped Cleveland clients file affidavits attesting to their eligibility for the moratorium and helped get more than $3.8 million worth of rental assistance.
All of these programs helped lessen the number of people who faced eviction. The Housing Court usually hears about 9,000 eviction cases a year – mostly against people of color in the majority-Black Cleveland – but the report estimated that the court saw 2,800 filed between June 1 and Dec. 31.
“In this COVID-19 era, (the right-to-counsel program), together with rental assistance and various new tenant protections have ‘flattened the curve’ – on a mounting eviction crisis,” the report said.
Housing Court Judge W. Moná Scott said she was surprised by the number of people the report said the program helped. While information about the program is included in the envelope tenants facing eviction receive with a summons, she said the number of tenants who show up for hearings remains low.
She said she spoke with Legal Aid staff about concerns regarding the volunteers who go door to door to reach people about the program, and said having people of color participate might help.
“If you’re sending white adults out and it’s predominantly African-Americans, the chance of responding is going to be low,” she said.
Despite the numbers, the report said the program only covers 38% of people facing eviction and that city lawmakers should consider expanding the program. Currently, Clevelanders who are at 200% of the federal poverty level and families with adult children still living at home because of a disability or other reason do not qualify for a free housing lawyer.
That would cost more money, though. As it stands, the budget built with the current requirements, calculated before the pandemic, has Legal Aid and United Way needing an estimated $505,000 for the current year. The city has committed $300,000 annually to a program estimated to cost $2.4 million annually.
Those numbers may change based on other factors, such as whether federal lawmakers allocate more money for rental assistance or if the eviction moratorium, set to expire on March 31, gets extended. If such protections expire, the city could see a “tsunami” of new evictions, the report stated.
“Clearly because of COVID, there are lots of other people we’re representing at Legal Aid who fall outside this legislation,” said Melanie Shakarian, Legal Aid’s director of development and communications. “It’s good the city took this initial step, but it’s limited.”
Scott also said she supports expanding the program.
City Council President Kevin Kelley said he is willing to work with Legal Aid and United Way on future budget issues and potentially expanding the program.
“We will come up with a solution,” Kelley said. “I don’t know what the city’s part will be, but we are open to working towards a solution. This is critical work we’re doing.”