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Housing Justice Alliance

(from left) Ian Friedman, Esq. - Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association | Councilman Tony BrancatelliKen Surratt - Cuyahoga County | Abigail Staudt, Esq. - Legal Aid | Steven Rys - Cleveland City Council | Council President Kevin Kelley | Jennifer Heinert O’Leary, Esq. - Cleveland City Council | Hazel Remesch, Esq. - Legal Aid | Christian Patno Esq. - Cleveland Academy of Trial Attorneys (not pictured: Tom Mlakar, Esq. - Legal Aid | Delores Gray - Community Member | Gladys Reed - Community Member)

We've created the Housing Justice Alliance to ensure fairness when evictions and housing conditions threaten a family's safety or well-being.

“You have the right to an attorney” — everyone is familiar with the Miranda rights, thanks to television crime shows. Our constitution ensures access to no-cost legal counsel when someone is accused of a serious crime and cannot afford an attorney. Yet many do not realize there is no such constitutional right to legal counsel in housing cases — even if the cases lead to homelessness.

Legal Aid’s Housing Justice Alliance will tip the scales for those who cannot afford a lawyer when their homes are at risk. By establishing a right to free, high-quality legal representation, we can secure safe, affordable, and stable housing for Cleveland families living in poverty.

Thousands Evicted without Legal Representation

Housing is a basic human need and the starting point for economic opportunity. A safe, stable home serves as a foundation for healthy families and the nexus of thriving communities. Yet, too many Cleveland families living in poverty are being evicted. There are an estimated 20,000 evictions in Cuyahoga County annually.  In Cleveland alone, where 9,000 -10,000 evictions filed are filed each year, only 1% -2% of tenants facing eviction are represented by an attorney, while most landlords have a lawyer.

An eviction can be devastating for a family. Research shows that unstable housing circumstances such as homelessness, multiple moves, and rent strain are associated with adverse health outcomes for caregivers and young children. These adverse health outcomes include maternal depression, increased child lifetime hospitalizations, poor child overall health, and poor caregiver health.

Furthermore, a recent study showed workers were 11-22% more likely to lose their job if they were recently evicted or otherwise forced from their home. For many, eviction spurs a spiral into deeper poverty, creating lasting inequity for every member of the evicted family.

Legal Aid Stops Issues from Escalating into a more Expensive Community Problems

Founded in 1905, Legal Aid is the only nonprofit specifically addressing the civil legal needs of Northeast Ohio’s poor, marginalized, and disenfranchised. Our 50 staff attorneys and 35 support staff members provide high-quality civil legal services where and when people need it most. With more than a century of expertise in poverty law and housing advocacy, Legal Aid is poised to halt the cascade of consequences that inevitably flows from eviction.

Studies show that tenants who receive full legal representation in eviction cases are more likely to stay in their homes and save on rent or fees. For this reason, Legal Aid’s effort to create a right to counsel in housing will focus on providing tenants with full legal representation in Cleveland housing court to ensure that tenants can participate meaningfully in the eviction proceedings.

Program Plan

The progression of this program is divided into three parts: the Preliminary Phase (2018-2019), Phase 1: Establishing the right and initial phase-in (2019), and Phase 2: Full implementation (TBD).

In the Preliminary Phase of the project, Legal Aid housing attorney Hazel Remesch was chosen to participate in the Sisters of Charity of Cleveland’s Innovation Mission Fellowship, an initiative to incubate and prepare innovative solutions to improve the lives of those living in poverty in Cleveland.

The research portion of the fellowship included visits to viable right to counsel programs in Washington, D.C. and New York City. From those viable programs, we learned the critical importance of having a comprehensive understanding of the landscape of evictions and the downstream effects they have on communities. With support from Cleveland City Council and the Sisters of Charity Foundation, Legal Aid has commissioned a study from Case Western Reserve University to determine the downstream costs and effects of eviction in Cleveland.

In Phase 1 of the program, anticipated to begin in 2019, the City of Cleveland plans to introduce legislation that creates a right to counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction. The city and Legal Aid will work together to engage Cuyahoga County to extend this right to the entire county on a phase-in schedule.

This right will focus on people at or below certain federal poverty guidelines and other household demographics. Due to limited resources, Legal Aid will not be able to represent every tenant, and therefore will collect data on the social and monetary impact of no-cost legal counsel compared to the absence of legal assistance.  Evaluation of Phase 1 will determine the plan for full implementation in Phase 2, when ideally, all low-income residents facing eviction who meet the eligibility requirements will have the option to be represented by an attorney.

Proven Outcomes, Lasting Impact

We know our approach works from our clients' own stories: “Sarah” moved into an apartment close to her work and children’s school, but soon noticed several problems. The kitchen sink pipes leaked, the front door did not lock, and roaches and mice had moved in before them. Sarah contacted her landlord, who promised to make repairs, but never did. When her calls and complaints went unanswered, the young mother called the public housing authority.  In retaliation, her landlord hired an attorney and sent an eviction notice.  But Sarah had an attorney by her side, too.  Legal Aid helped her keep her housing assistance, receive $1,615 in back pay for rent and the security deposit, and move her family to a new, healthy apartment nearby.

A Local Injustice with a Scalable Solution

Just a few years ago in New York City, the rate of legal representation in housing cases was similar to that of Cleveland: about 1%. In the summer of 2017, New York City became the first U.S. city to pass historic “right to counsel” legislation, guaranteeing tenants under 200% of poverty guidelines facing eviction the right to have legal representation. As a result, New York City is expected to gain a net savings of $320 million annually. And, in the first year since implementation, 84% of households represented in court by lawyers were able to avoid displacement.

Establishing a right to counsel in eviction cases will help many overcome barriers to employment and economic opportunity. It will not guarantee that every eviction will be avoided; many evictions are lawful.  However, it will ensure a significant number of low-income people who should not be evicted will not be, and that those who need to move can do so with a soft landing.


Legal Aid is prepared, through initial philanthropy and general operating funds, to fund a portion of the program for Phase 1.  Other sources of funding to complete Phase 1 are being discussed with City and County input.

The City of Cleveland may soon introduce legislation to create a right to counsel in Cleveland Housing Court. Additionally, Legal Aid is working with the Garfield Heights Municipal Court to create a pilot to determine the efficacy of the program in a suburban court.

Full implementation for Phase 2 will require funding collaboration between various municipalities, courts, and the county.

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