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Provide right to counsel in housing cases to reduce evictions, tackle poverty

Posted March 2, 2018
4:49 pm

Hazel Remesch, supervising attorney in Legal Aid's housing law practice group, authored an op-ed that was published in The Plain Dealer and online at She highlights how providing right to counsel in eviction cases can tip the scales between shelter and homelessness, safety and danger, and economic security and poverty.

The full text of the op-ed is below, or you can click here to read on

Provide right to counsel in housing cases to reduce evictions, tackle poverty: Hazel Remesch (Opinion)


A young mother moved into an apartment close to her children's school, but within the first week she noticed several problems. The kitchen sink pipes leaked, the front door did not lock, and roaches and mice had moved in before them.

She contacted her landlord, who promised to make repairs, but never fully carried through. After a couple of months, the landlord told her to treat the unit herself and take the cost off her rent. She tried to exterminate on her own, but it was too little, too late. When her calls and complaints went unanswered, the young mother called the public housing authority, which was assisting her with rent. In retaliation, her landlord hired an attorney and sent an eviction notice.

As an attorney focused on access to housing issues at The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, I see this scenario play out every day. Because of this, I am excited to witness and participate in the community read of Matthew Desmond's "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City."

When families lack safe, stable housing, many aspects of their lives fall apart. Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty. It leads to homelessness, stress and psychological trauma. Families of color; families headed by women; children and the elderly all suffer the consequences disproportionately. Children, in particular, suffer the trauma of eviction for a lifetime, as it causes disruption in education, which leads to school instability.

Those who faced eviction have difficulty renting again because of an eviction record or multiple evictions. For families that are already marginalized, moving is expensive; there are costs associated with any move, including paying a new security deposit, application fees, and first and last months' rent at a new unit.

Not only does losing the eviction case affect the family in multiple ways, but all of society also bears the cost in a way that is significantly more expensive than the cost of housing alone. The financial and personal strain of an eviction leads to a cascade of consequences. Evicted families often become more reliant on publicly financed medical care, shelters and benefits.

Desmond's book shines a light not only on the problem of housing insecurity, but also offers solutions.

In particular, he argues civil legal aid for low-income families in housing court "would be a cost-effective measure that would prevent homelessness, decrease evictions, and give poor families a fair shake."

Everyone is familiar with Miranda rights, promising legal assistance to those who cannot afford an attorney: "You have the right to an attorney, if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you."

However, Miranda rights only apply in serious criminal cases. So many are unaware there is no such constitutional right to legal representation in housing cases, even though their most basic human need is at risk.

Civil legal counsel can stabilize families living in poverty and is increasingly needed at a time when Northeast Ohio struggles with systemic, multigenerational poverty that's holding back the region and its residents.

In the city of Cleveland alone, more than 10,000 evictions are filed every year in Cleveland Municipal Court.

In 2017, a mere 1 percent of tenants facing eviction in Cleveland were represented by an attorney, usually from our team at Legal Aid. For the eviction cases we handle, we prevent 99 percent of evictions.

The young mother I mention above had a Legal Aid attorney by her side. She kept her housing assistance, received back $1,615 in rent and security deposit money, and was able to move her family to an apartment free of safety and health hazards.

Legal representation in housing cases levels the playing field by ensuring our most vulnerable understand the court process, know their options and can participate meaningfully in the legal proceeding. Legal representation can be life-changing: it can tip the scales between shelter and homelessness, safety and danger, and economic security and poverty.

Just a few years ago in New York City, the rate of representation in housing cases was also about one percent. However, after establishing a right-to-counsel pilot, New York City increased its representation to 27 percent and evictions dropped by 24 percent.

All our other community investments to educate, feed, and employ - they are all for naught if we cannot stabilize housing. A right to counsel in housing is a way to protect not only housing stability, but also hundreds of other community investments to ensure Northeast Ohio's growth.

Hazel Remesch is a supervising attorney in the housing practice group at The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland. She was recently selected as a Sisters of Charity Innovation Mission fellow to explore the idea of a right to counsel in housing cases.

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