Posted July 6, 20212:17 pm
CLEVELAND, Ohio — A new program formally launched in July to give free legal help to lower-income Cuyahoga County residents facing eviction, something that’s been on the mind of state and local officials as a federal moratorium on such cases is set to expire later this month.
The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland and the United Way of Greater Cleveland said Thursday that its “Free Eviction Help” program is aimed at ensuring tenants know their rights and the resources available to them. Housing advocates have long said only a small percentage of renters facing eviction are represented in court, especially compared to the number of landlords who file their cases with lawyers.
Legal Aid Development and Communications Director Melanie Shakarian said the program, largely paid for by $1 million that Cuyahoga County in March allocated from money it received through a federal stimulus bill, estimated that between 4,000 and 6,000 cases could be handled. That’s about half the suburban residents eligible for help under Legal Aid’s internal requirements, she said. The county courts usually see about 20,000 eviction cases a year, with about 9,000 being filed in Cleveland and the rest in the suburbs.
The legal help could range from an attorney talking to a renter facing eviction on the phone and pointing them to rental assistance programs to full-scale representation in court.
Renters can apply online or over the phone to see if they’re eligible. Those interested in finding out more or seeing if they qualify can visit www.FreeEvictionHelp.org or call Legal Aid at (216) 861-5835.
The new program has been built up since March off one already in place for the city of Cleveland. City Council in 2019 voted to create a “right to counsel” program that has Legal Aid attorneys represent tenants facing eviction, should they request help. The city’s program began July 1, 2020.
But while that program guarantees lawyers for many low-income renters facing eviction in Cleveland Housing Court, it has restrictions. Chief among them is that it doesn’t cover renters outside of Cleveland and Bratenahl. It also has restrictions on income. Renters must be at or below 100% of the poverty line, or $21,960 for a family of three – and renters must have children living in the house.
The new program seeks to expand on that work. Shakarian said more people will be eligible in Cleveland and now throughout the county. She said she did not have a good estimate as to how many lawyers would represent clients in court.
The program starts ahead of a July 31 deadline in which a moratorium the federal government enacted to prevent people from losing their homes if they fell behind on their rent is set to expire. The moratorium, which only bars eviction of many tenants for nonpayment of rent, began in September to prevent the coronavirus from spreading and has been extended several times.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in June that it extended the moratorium until the end of this month to give rental assistance programs more time to distribute money and that it would likely be the final time it’s extended. The moratorium has kept the number of eviction cases filed in the Cleveland area lower than normal.
Housing advocates in Cleveland and the U.S. are expecting an uptick in eviction cases once the moratorium expires. The Cuyahoga County program is aimed at ensuring more people don’t lose their homes if they have a defense in their case, or at the least can prevent an eviction from going on a person’s record and harming their chances of finding safe housing in the future.
The new program is also aimed at helping people apply for and receive rental assistance through local programs administered by CHN Housing Partners and EDEN. Shakarian said that all Clevelanders who reached out to Legal Aid seeking help with obtaining rental assistance were able to get it.
She said Legal Aid lawyers met with municipal court judges about a month ago to discuss the program. United Way will provide courts that handle housing cases with outreach materials and information on how to help tenants who request a lawyer for their eviction case.
Legal Aid and United Way’s hope is the program will be expanded in the future.
“$1 million helps a lot but it doesn’t completely satisfy what the current need is,” Shakarian said.