Posted June 1, 20198:33 pm
Cleveland City Council and the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland are is the verge of providing the kind of help to people in poverty that can be life altering: free lawyers to help people fight evictions.
In the latest episode of This Week in the CLE, the cleveland.com podcast discussion about recent news, reporters and editors talk about what the council action could mean. The discussion includes part of a recording from a visit by Council President Kevin Kelley and the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland to talk about the initiative.
The evidence is clear about how devastating eviction is. It removes children from their schools, creating greater hardships in their education. It depletes the limited funds families have. It launches people on to downward spirals that make getting out of poverty ever more challenging.
Without lawyers, people facing eviction have the odds stacked against them. They almost always lose in court. But when people facing eviction have a lawyer by their side, they win more than they lose, and the landlords often are forced to be more responsible and fair.
Download the podcast here or, on many devices, click on the player below to start listening. The eviction conversation starts at 21:22. You can also read the transcript.
Chris Quinn: This week a team from Legal Aid Society of Cleveland and Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley visited us to talk about how close we are to providing lawyers for people who are in poverty and facing eviction. The Legal Aid team reiterated how devastating eviction is for people in poverty because of how it interrupts school for kids, depletes their limited funds, and throws up all sorts of hurdles for them for emerging from property. Hazel Remesch, a Legal Aid attorney immersed in the project, explains some of what they have learned about Cleveland evictions. First, she told us how many people who get evicted have lawyers in Cleveland.
Hazel Remesch: What does the landscape look like? There's 9,000 evictions that are filed every year in the City of Cleveland alone, about 20,000 countywide. Only one to two percent of the tenants who are going into court are represented by and attorney, whereas 75% of landlords are showing up to court with a lawyer by their side.
Chris: Then she told us a bit about who gets evicted.
Hazel: It's 77% of them were African-American women. Sixty percent of the households have children, with two children on average. We also learned that about 38% of the people with surveyed were actually working full time at the time of the eviction. And the median monthly income was about $1,200 a month.
Chris: Finally, she told us what happened in New York when lawyers were provided to people being evicted.
Hazel: So New York has now been ... They're phasing their implementation in over five years. At the end of their first year, they've seen that 84% of the households who went into eviction court with a lawyer at their side avoided displacement.
Chris: With all of that, Council President Kelley explained that the argument for providing lawyers to those facing eviction has been made, and he's now trying to figure out how to pay for it.
Kevin Kelley: For reasons that have been stated, that the kind of the moral case has been made, and that argument, that's over with. And it's a question of how do we get to the end. And that is a math problem that's not as simple as a number of cases times cost equals what the city's on the hook for. It's a matter of how do we put together ... In anything we do in government. How do you put together something that's going to be sustainable that doesn't ... If it runs off the rails it will be not good for future councils and mayors and tenants in our housing community. So we're looking at different things like ... Well, right now, Legal Aid provides services for up to 200% of federal poverty guidelines. Maybe we can't go that high to start. Maybe we're looking 150, maybe we're looking at 100. Maybe we're looking at families with children. Maybe we're looking ... So we're trying to plug in different formulas to come up with what is that number that is something that is sustainable. And, spoiler alert, it is going to start limited.
Chris: So, Bob, when is Kelley aiming to have the legislation ready?
Bob Higgs: I think he'd like to have something over the summer. Council goes on recess June 3rd, but they'll have a couple of big summer meetings. But it's going to take a little while to pull it together because he's got to figure out how to pay for it. That could push it into early fall, but he wants to get at this pretty quickly.
Chris: He was visibly uncomfortable during our discussion when people brought up cost. Do you think that's because he has to navigate a very challenging political landscape to make this happen and worries that early talk about cost will just make it harder?
Bob: I think that's a big part of it, because it's ... We're talking about millions of dollars here, potentially, and that's a hard sell to some members of council and also to some parts of the community. You've got people out there who will say, "Oh, if they just paid their rent, they wouldn't be in this fix." But it's not that simple. That's the moral thing. But finding a way to pay for it is tricky, because it is a lot of money.
Chris: We learned a lot about the challenges for affordable housing and eviction through the project that we did on poverty called A Greater Cleveland, something Mark was involved in. And in the need to help people who are facing eviction we even had the guy who wrote the book about eviction come to town and give a speech at Playhouse Square about these challenges. How important do you think this would be, Mark, to changing the landscape?
Mark Naymik: It'll make a huge difference, on two levels. One is, first let's address that they're not looking to get people out of paying rent. What they found is that people get taken advantage of without a lawyer, so things become worse. A landlord will not only go for the back rent but then will hit them for damages in the apartment, so that it becomes a secondary cost and hit on them. And often when they are represented by a lawyer, when the tenant is, you realize that, "Okay, hey, that tenant has been complaining for months about the leaky ceiling, so you can't charge them for it." That's something that was on the landlord. And they just want to make a little more balanced. And when there is a lawyer involved, this is the other big impact, they often find that a little negotiation can resolve the situation for both sides. Maybe they can figure out a way to delay the payment, if there's a promise made or some money is given up front, then the landlords says, "Okay, you can stay. I'll get my money. I don't have to go through the cost of re-renting." And things move forward. And that's the goal. The goal is not to get them out of paying what they owe, it is to make sure that they're not taken advantage of for being poor.
Chris: Well, those numbers from Hazel were astounding. I mean, to go from winning a couple of percent of the time to well over more than half the time. The other thing that they all talked about is, once the landlord knows they might be up against somebody with a lawyer, they're much less likely to seek eviction because they know that the units are not really up to speed. And once there's a lawyer for the tenant saying, "Hey, there was no water for a month. What gives?" That they get in trouble with the housing court.
Mark: This whole study, we’ve been following it for a couple of years, with the Legal Aid Society. Really is about much bigger system, too, right? They want to get at, if the landlord has a bad roof, does this trigger an inspection? Obviously, that’s the stick that scares them, by coming into that court then someone may go check. There’s been efforts by Legal Aid Society and others to get a registry of landlords on the books, which is now there, and they have to begin to catalog every property that’s a rentable property, and that eventually things will be better, better oversight and all that stuff with it. So there’s a lot to this program.