Posted November 28, 20186:09 pm
By Leila Atassi, cleveland.com
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Housing court in many American cities can be an unfair place, where unscrupulous landlords weaponize the eviction process against vulnerable tenants, most of whom cannot afford to take a day off work to attend court, much less to pay for legal representation.
But in the coming year, city leaders in Cleveland hope to join a growing number of municipalities that are aiming to level that playing field, by guaranteeing legal counsel in eviction cases to the tenants most in need.
The impact of evictions on communities and how right-to-counsel legislation can empower tenants in housing court were at the heart of a forum Wednesday at the City Club of Cleveland. New York City Council members Vanessa L. Gibson and Mark Levine -- leaders of the right-to-counsel movement in New York – joined Cleveland City Councilmen Tony Brancatelli and Kevin Kelley to discuss how programs like New York’s can decrease eviction rates and homelessness and ease the financial burden for cities managing the fallout from thousands of eviction cases each year.
Unlike defendants in criminal cases, who are constitutionally guaranteed legal representation, defendants in housing cases have no such right. That means the vast majority must navigate the system alone – with devastating consequences. The upheaval can be profoundly destabilizing for families, who often must change schools or lose work on account of transience. And finding affordable, safe and decent housing becomes increasingly difficult with an eviction on one’s record.
In New York, until recently, only one percent of tenants facing eviction had an attorney at their side, while 95 percent of landlords had representation, said Levine. That created a system ripe for abuse, where landlords filed weak or fraudulent cases, and tenants put up with deplorable housing conditions, knowing that a code enforcement complaint could result in a retaliatory eviction, he said. (Tenants in Cleveland’s housing court face similar odds. Only one percent have legal representation, while 90 percent of landlords do, Brancatelli said, adding that 70 percent of tenants don’t even show up to court, leading to default judgments for landlords.)
“If someone is facing a life-altering proceeding, there is no justice if one side has an attorney and the other side does not,” Levine said. “… We should all be outraged by that. The landlords have built a business model that uses housing court as a weapon, knowing that it’s not going to be a fair fight.”
In 2017, however, after three years of demonstrations, news conferences and petitions to Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York passed legislation providing legal representation in eviction cases to all defendants whose income is 200 percent of the federal poverty level or below. Since then, the city has seen a 24 percent reduction in evictions, with fewer cases filed overall. And 84 percent of tenants with representation are staying in their homes, Levine said.
Gibson said leaders of the movement mustered the political will by building a broad coalition that included members of the clergy, labor leaders, school advocates, vocational training organizations and senior citizen groups like the AARP. They then paid an outside firm to compile data on which communities were most effected by eviction and how much the city would save – in the cost of sheltering families, providing social services, and educating transient youth -- by giving each defendant an attorney instead of letting them fight the case alone.
Eventually, de Blasio agreed to support the plan, which cost the city $200 million on the front end, though Gibson and Levine said it will save at least twice that much in social services in the long haul.
Following the lead of New York and other cities with right-to-counsel legislation, Brancatelli and Kelley said Cleveland is already working with researchers at Case Western Reserve University to study the potential impact on families and the community.
Kelley said it saddens him to think that a cost analysis could become the main consideration in deciding whether the city would provide legal representation to poor tenants.
“We need to make a decision that this is worthy of our community’s time and effort, and then we’ll work toward the cost,” Kelley said. “The question should be, ‘What would it cost to do nothing?’ Let’s start there.”
Gibson said one value of New York’s preliminary study was that it humanized the city’s homeless population, helped develop empathy among policymakers and inspired the will to prevent homelessness at the point of an eviction filing.
“Many of our colleagues didn’t realize the face of homelessness,” Gibson said. “As it turned out, the majority of families who were living in the shelters were employed. They had fulltime jobs. They were working parents. But they fell on hard times and were living paycheck to paycheck.”
Gibson said the city’s Legal Aid attorneys also can refer clients to a host of wraparound services to help address problems underlying eviction, including domestic violence, unemployment, citizenship issues or access to social services.
Gibson and Levine reflected on the lessons learned in the New York program’s first year and said they hope Cleveland can learn from them, too, as the city begins designing its own approach.
For example, New York tenants are not assigned an attorney until they are in the courthouse, Levine said. Wily landlords have caught onto that and have begun approaching tenants on the courthouse steps to intimidate them into unfair settlements. The city is working on a system to assign counsel sooner, he said. But also, many tenants don’t even realize that a lawyer is waiting for them in the courthouse. So, educating tenants about their rights is key to the program’s success, Levine said.
Gibson pointed out that cutting off the eligibility threshold at 200 percent of the poverty level leaves many poor tenants without representation. Legislation is in the works, she said, that would open eligibility to tenants whose income is 400 percent of the poverty level. She urged Cleveland to consider serving as many clients as possible with the city’s future program.