Posted September 19, 20204:00 pm
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Less than two months after taking the bench, Cleveland Housing Court Judge W. Moná Scott found herself in March grappling with how to adapt her docket to the social distancing requirements of the coronavirus pandemic and bracing for an avalanche of eviction filings propelled by a suddenly failing economy.
Since then, Scott has held hearings online, with an eye toward making sure defendants can access their cases despite the digital divide. Meanwhile, on the heels of a 90-day moratorium on eviction filings in Cleveland, the city launched its long-anticipated “right to counsel” program in July, providing free legal representation for families in poverty who are facing eviction.
For Scott, drawing all of that together has been the challenge of a lifetime, as the housing court sits at the fulcrum of one of the worst consequences of the pandemic’s recession – housing insecurity.
After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced earlier this month yet another eviction moratorium, this time nationwide, I had a chance to catch up with Scott about the challenges of implementing the new federal order, the early successes and setbacks of the city’s Right to Counsel program, and the impact of government rental assistance on the housing court caseload, mid-pandemic.
Here’s what Scott had to say:
Compassion and rental assistance
Coming out of the citywide eviction moratorium, the court had capped eviction filings to 125 a day to hold back the surge and let the court catch up on the backlog of cases that had been in the queue for months. Surprisingly, however, Scott says the court never saw the record-breaking number of filings everyone predicted. She attributes that to a combination of factors – compassionate landlords willing to reach out-of-court agreements with tenants during tough times and the availability of rental assistance from the federal government.
The city and Cuyahoga County received $18.1 million in federal rental assistance to be disbursed to those facing financial hardship on account of the pandemic. About $3 million of that has been paid out or is being processed, according to CHN Housing Partners, which is administering the funds and handling the application process. That means a considerable sum remains on the table.
It’s hard to believe, Scott said, but many tenants still aren’t aware of the available assistance or they view the application process as too cumbersome during an already stressful time.
“In my years of working in housing issues, rarely have I seen government money available to pay rent. But I want to tell people, if it’s there, take advantage of it. If you’re unemployed and can’t make ends meet and there’s money available to keep a roof over your head, get it. Because if you let it pass you by, it’s not if this eviction happens, it’s when.”
Federal eviction moratorium
Scott said the federal eviction moratorium provides a cushion for many tenants who are waiting for rental assistance to come through or getting started at a new job and need a little more time to catch up on rent. Eligibility, however, hinges on several criteria that leave much gray area for the court’s discretion. And arriving at policy that governs the implementation of the federal order has been a challenge because magistrates must determine to what degree each defendant has met the qualifications.
For example, to qualify, tenants must file a declaration with their landlord affirming that they have “used best efforts to obtain government assistance for rent or housing” and are unable to pay rent due to a COVID-19-related hardship. They also must attest to having “used best efforts” to make as close to full rent payments as possible, and that eviction would likely render them homeless or leave them no option but to share close quarters with others.
All of those factors leave room for dispute, and Scott said the court already is hearing arguments from the attorneys of landlords trying to disqualify tenants.
In exercising discretion, Scott said, the court finds itself in the difficult position of balancing the public health concerns of widespread eviction during the pandemic against the need to make landlords whole and protect them from losing their livelihood. She also worries that many tenants don’t understand that the temporary halt to the eviction process is not the same as rent forgiveness. All back rent will come due when the moratorium ends on Dec. 31 -- which also happens to be during the coldest, most brutal season to end up evicted or homeless.
The Right to Counsel
Scott applauded the efforts of attorneys from the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland for their work on the city’s Right to Counsel program, which offers legal representation to tenants who are facing eviction while at or below the poverty line with at least one child living in the household.
To my surprise, however, Scott said she has not noticed a significant uptick in tenants participating in their cases. And still too many who should qualify for an attorney free of charge are falling through the cracks, unaware of the program’s existence.
In part, Scott blames the pandemic. If these were normal times, she noted, a Legal Aid attorney would be physically stationed at the courthouse, talking with tenants and screening those who might qualify for free representation. Making those connections is much more difficult in virtual hearings.
To help bridge that divide, Scott said she has suggested that Legal Aid attorneys sit in on every virtual docket, where they can request private discussions with potential clients. She also said she has encouraged Legal Aid to “meet people where they are” -- to promote the Right to Counsel program in places such as free food distribution sites and COVID-19 testing locations, rather than relying on traditional outreach methods and mailers.
“If I’m African-American, and I’m poor, and I’m stressed and depressed and dealing with a pandemic, and now I’m facing an eviction, do you really think I’m reading the summons that’s coming in the mail, telling me my court date?” Scott said. “Do you really think I’ll open the door when I see a white person knocking to give me information about my right to counsel? You must get to the point of meeting people where they are. Because traditional ways do not touch people in poverty.”
A spokeswoman for Legal Aid said the agency promotes the Right to Counsel program at grocery stores and libraries, in radio ads and with flyers in all Cleveland Food Bank boxes distributed since the pandemic began. She added that Legal Aid embraces the notion of stationing attorneys on every magistrate’s docket and is thrilled to hear that the judge will accommodate that in the future.