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from Crain’s Cleveland Business: Personal View: Miles to go before we sleep

Posted March 28, 2021
9:27 am

Written by Colleen Cotter and Augie Napoli in Crain's Cleveland Business on 03/28/2021

As we exit this long pandemic winter, many of us had the benefit of some warm nights at home, protected from the snow and cold. A relevant winter reflection for this year could be Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," penned in 1922, not long after the 1918 flu pandemic. The poem creates images of a beautiful snowfall, with a warm, cozy homestead not far away. The narrator pauses in his travel to watch the snow falling in the woods. He takes a moment to reflect.

At Legal Aid and United Way, we are pausing only a moment to reflect — at the end of a harsh winter — on our incredible success at keeping people in safe, stable homes during the pandemic. Just a month ago, we presented to city of Cleveland leaders our first report on the initial six months of right to counsel (RTC) in Cleveland Housing Court.

Highlights of that report include our success in ensuring tenants were not displaced and in accessing rent relief. In 93% of cases that concluded in 2020, the Legal Aid attorney was able to prevent eviction or an involuntary move. Additionally, thanks to tenants having legal help, nearly $4 million of rent relief has been distributed within Cleveland, preserving income of landlords.

In this COVID-19 era, the right to counsel, together with rental assistance and various new tenant protections, have "flattened the curve" on a mounting eviction crisis.

Despite the positive current outlook: a successful launch, proving our hypothesis that lawyers make the difference, keeping people housed — there is much work to still be done. We face a looming crisis.

Pre-COVID-19, there were about 9,000 evictions filed annually in Cleveland Housing Court. The majority of these evictions involved Black female-headed households with minor children. During this COVID-19 era, the households facing eviction have similar demographics, although the raw numbers of evictions filings are down. As some tenant protections end and the job loss from the pandemic continues, we anticipate a significant increase in eviction filings.

Access to quality legal representation can prevent the negative impacts of evictions for individuals, families and communities. Current tenant protections will not last in perpetuity. We will see a spike in evictions in later 2021. As of February, more than 13,800 Cuyahoga County residents have applied for rental assistance since the pandemic began, and those residents lost an aggregated $203 million in annual income.

Without additional resources focused on legal representation not just in Cleveland Housing Court, but throughout our region, the ripple effects of these evictions will hold our region back for decades.

The city of Cleveland's initial annual $300,000 support of RTC is leveraged with private philanthropy and other funds to complete a $2.4 million annual program budget. This Cleveland model is unique: No other city in the United States that has legislated a housing right to counsel is designed this way: Fundraising is crucial for initial success, and long-term government support is contemplated for growth and sustainability once further evaluation proves positive results for the community. The initial six-month data from our recent report begins to shed light on the importance of long-term government investment to stabilize housing and neighborhoods.

The United Way and Legal Aid teams stand ready to collaborate with public officials and business leaders to build on what we have accomplished. Now is the time to scale up and create further impact to secure safe, stable housing in our community. In paraphrasing Frost's poem, the most famous line is repeated: "But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep." We have unfinished business, promises to keep — and miles to go before we sleep.

Click here to read the full article in Crain's Cleveland Business. 

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