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From Advocates push judges, Cuyahoga County officials to create program to work out eviction cases without forced move-out

Posted October 18, 2021
4:14 pm

By Eric Heisig,

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Housing advocates in Cuyahoga County are making a concerted push to judges who hear eviction cases and county officials to adopt a program they say could lead to fewer people having the blemish of an eviction on their record.

A memo circulated last week by United Way of Greater Cleveland President and CEO Augie Napoli shows a plan that the nonprofit and several others would like to see put in place not only to address what they fear will be an influx of eviction cases in the coming months, but also to ensure that renters in similar situations in different cities within the county will be offered the same opportunities.

The proposal’s biggest portion involves setting up formal programs that encourage landlords and the tenants they are seeking to evict for nonpayment of rent to try and work it out without a judge’s order.

Other parts include working more with community organizations and legal service providers like the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, which helped draft the proposals, and having formal policies to slow down the speed of eviction cases so tenants can apply for rental assistance.

“We’d like to work together to create an eviction diversion effort that works for people in need in Northeast Ohio and be a national model for other cities,” the memo stated. “We understand these efforts take court resources, but these efforts will take less court resources now than in the future as eviction filings climb.”

(You can read the memo here or at the bottom of this story.)

The proposal comes more than a month after the Supreme Court blocked a federal moratorium that disallowed the eviction of people who could not pay their rent during the coronavirus pandemic, taking away a safety net that many renters had for nearly a year.

Many advocates pointed to the moratorium as an imperfect but effective measure in keeping people in their homes during difficult economic times, as well to not overcrowd homeless shelters when it was medically dangerous for large crowds to gather. Landlords, many of which only own a few properties they depend on for income, largely opposed the moratorium because it took away the means to get rid of a tenant who did not pay rent.

The Eviction Lab at Princeton University, which tracks eviction cases in several areas nationwide, reports the number of filed eviction cases are running below normal in Cleveland, though they were up in September over August, after the moratorium lapsed. Cleveland represents about half of the roughly 20,000 eviction cases filed county-wide in an average year.

Those advocates fear the cases could rise and want to have something in place as they do.

In addition to Legal Aid and United Way, the memo is signed by the leaders of the county’s Office of Homeless Services, CHN Housing Partners, the Cleveland Mediation Center, EDEN, Enterprise Community Partners Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland and Step Forward.

The agencies laid out a way for eviction cases could work both before and after a lawsuit is filed, most of which would be for nonpayment of rent but could be for other reasons such as poor conditions in a home.

Upon filing, the renter who receives their mailed summons would also get information from the court about Legal Aid, rental assistance and a form to opt into a mediation program. If both sides agree to go into mediation after the first court appearance, it would go into that process, where renters would be connected with a lawyer, rental assistance or other services.

If an agreement is reached to either avoid an eviction or set a move-out date, the case would proceed as such. Without an agreement, the case would go to a hearing before a judge.

They also laid out a way for mediation to happen before a case is filed, which could keep the entire case out of court.

Legal Aid is pushing this now, in part, because it has programs in place to represent poor people facing eviction in cases throughout the county. The city now provides a lawyer through Legal Aid at no cost to people facing eviction if they are at or below the federal poverty level – $21,960 annually for a family of three – and have at least one child living with them. The county, as of July, also works with Legal Aid for a program that provides lawyers and advice to impoverished people in some eviction cases.

Legal Aid Supervising Attorney Hazel Remesch said most of what is in the proposal is used in some of the county’s municipal courts. However, the judges take a “piecemeal approach” in the way they handle eviction cases, especially during the pandemic. Some courts, like Cleveland and Garfield Heights, conduct mediations, while many more do not send out information to renters facing eviction about the ability to get a free lawyer.

This proposal, if adopted, could bring some uniformity to how cases are heard.

The county could pass laws that mandate that cases are heard in certain ways, as well as provide money for mediators to work in the courts, Remesch said. Exactly how much that could cost, though, is an open question.

While the memo is being drafted, the next steps are to try to get buy-in from municipal court judges. Napoli wrote in an email Friday that he had not received any feedback on the memo but added that it was likely too early to expect any responses.

At least one judge is enthusiastic, though.

Garfield Heights Municipal Court Judge Deborah Nicastro said the mediations that took place for cases in her court largely did help people keep evictions off their record while also providing opportunities for the landlords to get paid back rent or be able to re-rent a property out.

She said, though, that many landlords prefer mediation to happen after an eviction case is filed, so there is some way for a judge to enforce an agreement.

But “if the county’s funding it, I’m 100% behind it,” she said.

A spokesman for Cleveland Housing County Judge W. Moná Scott said in an email that she had no comment on the proposal.

Mary Louise Madigan, a spokeswoman for County Executive Armond Budish’s administration, said it was behind the proposal, but that how it would be paid for is “an ongoing conversation.”

County Councilwoman Cheryl Stephens, who chairs the council’s Community Development Committee, said she spoke this week with Melanie Shakarian, Legal Aid’s director of development and communications, about the proposal.

Far from dismissive of the prospect, she instead discussed having the county or courts partner with the Ohio Supreme Court, feeling that having the most powerful judges in the state court system would add some weight to the proposal as it stands.

“Attorneys and judges tend to pay more attention to a request that comes from the Supreme Court than they do from the county,” Stephens said.

Shakarian said Legal Aid and the other advocates are open to suggestions as to how to move the proposal forward.

“We’d be more than happy to entertain any partnership ideas the county has to make this a reality,” she said.


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