Limited options exist for people who need help paying for their home. Some government programs that help tenants include:
- Housing Choice Voucher Program (also known as Section 8)
- Subsidies attached to specific buildings
- Low Income Housing Tax Credits
- HUD subsidized building
A housing lifeline for low-income residents
Anyone who’s ever watched a TV cop drama knows about Miranda warnings and a citizen’s constitutionally protected right to an attorney when accused of a crime.
But what you may not learn on television is that when it comes to civil cases, including housing and eviction disputes, there is no right to counsel in a system that favors landlords.
The Housing Justice Alliance, an initiative led by the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, aims to restore balance for low-income residents who could never afford an attorney on their own.
If successfully established, it could make Cleveland just the fourth city in the country — behind New York City, San Francisco and Newark, N.J. — with a guaranteed right to counsel, something that stands to benefit not just the individuals and their families facing eviction, but the wider community and, perhaps counterintuitively, even the real estate market itself.
Statistics from the Ohio Supreme Court indicate there are roughly 9,000 evictions filed each year in Cleveland — where about 58% of all homes are rentals — and about 20,000 countywide.
Traditionally, just 1% to 2% of those cases involve an attorney on the tenants’ side, according to legal aid attorneys, while landlords almost always have lawyers in tow.
The hearings typically last all of five minutes, said Hazel Remesch, supervising attorney in the housing group for Cleveland Legal Aid. The nonprofit regularly assists low-income residents facing eviction, although because of already stretched resources that’s still only a fraction of those who might qualify for help.
As Remesch explained, the courts are designed to move eviction cases through the system quickly, tipping the scales in favor of lawyer-backed landlords versus tenants who often don’t show up to their hearings at all. Those who do appear often don’t know their rights or how to plead a case when they might have recourse against their landlord for something like unsuitable living conditions. Without a lawyer, those concerns are almost never raised.
“At the end of those five minutes, the usual outcome is the tenant loses their housing. But they’ve been put in that situation without having the information on what their rights are, what defenses the could have raised, or told of what negotiations representation could bring,” Remesch said. “I think the system has been created in a way that it’s really landlord-friendly.”
Critics say housing courts have become machines designed to process evictions, not necessarily to administer justice.
“So what a right to counsel does is change the landscape,” Remesch pointed out. “It disrupts the system and generally makes the process more fair.”
Securing funding for the program is legal aid’s current challenge.
Why a right to counsel?
The idea is to address systemic issues created by eviction, which can have a compounding impact on displaced tenants, who, without their home, may end up on the streets or in prison, or may lose their job or kids, or worse.
Affected children may end up bouncing between school districts, or missing school altogether, creating instability that begets other problems and straining social services.
So addressing eviction means addressing the factors that lead to homelessness, and the other issues that leads to, said John Pollock, coordinator for the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.
“Say someone becomes homeless or ends up in a shelter. Those are taxpayer-funded services. Say they went to prison or there’s court time spent on prosecuting them for whatever vagrancy crime. The cost of shelter services (in New York City) alone was something like $36,000 a year for one family,” Pollock noted. “When you look at the cost of counsel, it’s a pittance compared to that.”
Businesses don’t tend to like homeless people and often lobby for ordinances criminalizing homelessness, Pollock added. Economically speaking, “the better answer is not to make people homeless in the first place.” That can often be as simple as helping someone bridge the gap of one rent or utility payment or helping them negotiate a way to stave off eviction.
“We consider a right to counsel as preventive legal medicine,” Pollock said. “It’s intervening in a system at the point where you can treat the underlying problem instead of just the symptom.”
There’s also the ideological sense of justice that comes with it and is absent otherwise.
Yet half the people who face eviction don’t even show up to court at all, let alone with a lawyer.
“And why would that be? Because the system is horribly broken and they know it,” Pollock said.
What comes next
In Cleveland, legal aid is ironing out the details of its inaugural program as it works with city council. That includes finalizing the parameters for support and priorities for anyone receiving help, such as having a young family, said legal aid managing attorney Abigail Staudt.
There also needs to be a framework for the rollout of the entitlement, which could take several years to hit full implementation, similar to what New York City is doing.
Ultimately, legal aid would like to see the right to counsel expand for all of Cuyahoga County.
Other details involve how the attached funding mechanism could work. For example, the related funds might be used to outright cover a single month of rent or a utility payment for a needy tenant, avoiding the need for an eviction hearing at all.
That all comes down to funding, the need for which could vary depending on the look of the program. Securing funding likely means striking a number of community and philanthropic partnerships.
Like many grass-roots initiatives, the challenge in moving from concept to practice, whether with donor groups or city council, will be getting that first group to step up with money.
“We already know it’s the morally right thing to do,” Remesch said. “We are trying to solve really major issues our community has faced and in that process, it will make the bottom line look better for our entire community.”
New York City legislated a right to counsel in summer 2017, following a three-year tenants’ rights campaign, becoming the first city in the U.S. to do so. It took backing by city council, which established the right through legislation and a mandate to fund it. The related funds largely pay for legal aid attorneys, who assist those facing eviction living at 200% or below of the federal poverty line. The program is being phased in through various ZIP codes until fully implemented in 2022.
It’s a little over $150 million for five years, said Susanna Blankley, coalition coordinator for the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition.
“Evictions are about power, not individual facts of a case,” Blankley said. “They’re used en masse because landlords have had control over the court system for so long. It’s a tool to scare, gentrify and displace. It won’t shift the balance of power unless all tenants know they have a right to fight with the same tools landlords have in housing court.”
According to New York City’s Office of Civil Justice, the program had a transformative effect in just one year. In that time, 84% of tenants provided a lawyer stayed in their homes (22,000 households), with total evictions dropping 14%. And landlords began suing people less often, with eviction filings dropping 5% by the next summer.
Other cities followed with different programs backing the right to counsel with variations between them. Pollock said similar initiatives are gaining ground in other markets, including Philadelphia, Detroit and Los Angeles.
A study commissioned in Philly (one is in the works in Cleveland involving Case Western Reserve University, but hasn’t been completed yet) showed that 30% of tenants facing eviction would not be able to afford legal representation. While serving them could cost about $3.5 million annually, the costs associated with things like social services that would be avoided if those tenants weren’t evicted would be more than $45 million.
That creates an estimated ROI of $12.74 for every dollar spent supporting low-income tenants facing eviction, said Neil Steinkamp, a managing director with Stout Risius Ross, a Chicago advisory firm that completed the Philly study and others like it. He suggested that results of a study in Cleveland might look similar to Philly’s.
While Cleveland Legal Aid said the dollar figure for funding a program annually in Cleveland has not been determined yet, it’s likely in the neighborhood of low to mid-seven figures.
Praise and criticism
Critics of a right to counsel might include landlords. A May Cleveland.com story about city council preparing to introduce legislation related to Cleveland’s Housing Justice Alliance drew commenters who criticized council for “working against landlords who only wish to receive rent on time.” Some suggested it would be a deterrent from owning rental properties in the city.
But criticism is more of a “knee-jerk” reaction by some in the landlord community, said Christian Patno, an immediate past president of the Cleveland Academy of Trial Attorneys and HJA advisory committee member.
“With this, we think we will be able to help landlords by facilitating tenants who are consistent and able to stay and help those tenants who have complicated issues or just aren’t understood to help facilitate a discussion and resolve a dispute so eviction can be avoided,” Patno said. “In that way, it’s a win-win.”
Landlords sought out by Crain’s generally praised the HJA.
“Anyone working in the multifamily business, regardless of area of specialty, deals with evictions. It’s an inevitable part of the business. We believe regulations like the HJA will have a negative impact on property managers who do not follow the rules, and we believe that this outcome is precisely the point of the legislation,” said David Heller, CEO of NRP Enterprises, which has more than 50 communities across Northeast Ohio. “We can imagine that the legislation may create some additional work for the management companies who play by the rules, but as a whole, we believe that this is a small price to pay if it has a beneficial impact on the unfortunate individuals who find themselves on the receiving end of unfair treatment.
“We think the greatest application of the HJA will be in circumstances where residents are battling cases of wrongful eviction, such as discrimination and other unlawful practices,” he added. “In those instances, we see this as a great benefit for those seeking representation.”
After learning of legal aid’s work, Garfield Heights Municipal Court Judge Deborah Nicastro was inspired to look at a smaller right-to-counsel program in that city, independent of the one sought in Cleveland that could serve as a pilot program.
Nicastro’s court handled 900 evictions last year, much fewer than Cleveland. Still, most people “have no clue what their rights and responsibilities are,” she said, adding that most of the time spent with tenants in housing court is educating them. Legal support would likely result in different outcomes beyond eviction.
“I thought this would be a good way for them to have individual representation to explain all that before we get into the trial process,” she said. “A judge has to be impartial during hearings. I’m not supposed to help a landlord or tenant. But when the understanding is deficient on one side, then the system just doesn’t work.”
How Do I Apply for Subsidized Housing?
Rental housing where a tenant pays a portion of the rent and a government subsidy covers the rest of the rent is known as “subsidized housing.” There are many types of subsidized programs. A common example is housing subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) but owned and managed by a private company. Subsidized housing is enormously helpful to people with low income because it allows them to pay less for rent and have more money for other living expenses. As a result, many subsidized buildings have waiting lists. When applying for subsidized housing, tenants should apply to several different places to improve their chances of getting into a unit as quickly as possible.
Identify the neighborhoods where you want to live and apply at the subsidized developments in those communities. You can get a list of federally subsidized housing developments by calling the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) at: 800.955.2232 or visiting HUD’s Subsidized Apartment Search at https://apps.hud.gov/apps/section8/index.cfm.
Request an application from each housing development separately. You may have to pick up the application at the building.
Collect birth certificates, Social Security cards, and income information for all household members. You will need to submit this documentation with your application. Return your completed application with supporting documents to the same place where you got it. Be sure to keep a copy and ask for a receipt that shows the date you delivered it.
Complete the application truthfully. For example, if you have a criminal record that has not been sealed, you must say so if asked on your application. Housing providers cannot automatically deny your application based on having a criminal record. However, they can deny your application if you provide false information. In addition, be honest about the last 3-5 places you have lived, even if you did not get along with a prior landlord. Landlords are not allowed to tell another potential landlord their opinion of you as a tenant; rather, the prior landlord should just confirm you rented from them in the past.
Keep track of all the places you apply, the dates you apply, and any additional steps required to complete their application process. You can also ask the housing provider to notify another person who is helping you (e.g. friend, family, case worker) about your application.
If your application for subsidized housing is denied, read the notice carefully. You will usually have the option to appeal the decision, but must do so by the deadline given in the notice. If your application for subsidized housing is denied because of past criminal history, you may apply for help from Legal Aid by calling 1.888.817.3777.
This article was written by Dani Lachina and appeared in The Alert: Volume 35, Issue 1.
Do you need to file papers in court but cannot afford the fees?
You might be able to reduce or avoid paying the filing fees up front with a “poverty affidavit” (or “affidavit of indigency”). Courts generally require a fee whenever a person files a new case or asks the court to do something by filing a “motion” in a pending case or files a “counterclaim” in a pending case.
But if you have a low income, you might be able to file your documents in court without the payment or with a lower payment if you first file a “poverty affidavit.” A poverty affidavit is a written, sworn statement that you have a low income and do not have enough money to pay fees.
To see a sample poverty affidavit and instructions on how to fill it out, click here.
Once you fill out the poverty affidavit, you must have your signature notarized and file the completed affidavit in the court where your case is being heard.
After you file a poverty affidavit in a case, the clerk will either not charge you any money or will charge you much less to file other documents in the same case. Even though you do not have to pay the fees up front, you may still be responsible for the fees at the end of the case.
Most Ohio courts have their own affidavit forms for you to fill out. You can request these from the clerk at your local court. Here are links to poverty affidavits forms for the courts that post the form online:
- Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas: http://coc.cuyahogacounty.us/pdf_coc/en-US/affidavit_of_indigence.pdf
- Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court: http://domestic.cuyahogacounty.us/pdf_domestic/en-US/Misc/Affidavit%20Waive%20Cost%20with%20Chart.pdf
- Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court: http://juvenile.cuyahogacounty.us/pdf/miscellaneous%20forms/2013-Forms/PovertyAffidavit-JuvCrt-form2013.pdf
- East Cleveland Municipal Court: http://www.eccourt.com/pdf/poverty_aff.pdf
- Ashtabula County Court of Common Pleas: http://courts.co.ashtabula.oh.us/forms/COC/PA.pdf
Some courts, for example Cleveland Municipal Court, will accept a generic poverty affidavit. You can download a blank poverty affidavit form here:
For additional information related to using a poverty affidavit to access the court system, click here to read an article from Legal Aid.
This information and the information provided on any court’s website cannot take the place of individual advice from a lawyer. Each person’s situation is different. You should contact a lawyer if you need legal representation or if you have questions about your legal rights and responsibilities.
If you need further help, and plan to visit a Legal Aid Brief Advice Clinic – click here for upcoming clinic dates. Remember to bring all the documents with you. Attorneys will need the documents in order to advise you.
One Client Looks Forward to Holidays in her Home
Josie Glover thought, “Never in my wildest dreams” she could someday own her own home. She saved and saved, then took a series of classes through Lorain Metropolitan Housing Authority to guide her through the process.
When she found the perfect home, she signed up for automatic withdrawal so her payment would never be late. Her loan was sold to another lender, but somehow, the direct withdrawal information was not. Suddenly, she was behind in her payments.
She had the money in her account and wrote a letter to the bank, but they wouldn’t accept payments
they considered “late.” The bank also refused to consider the incomes of the other members of the household, her son, who gets SSI, and daughter who works as a phlebotomist.
She applied for a loan modification in 2013, but was turned down for the same reason. She was facing foreclosure and turned to Legal Aid for help.
Ms. Glover’s mortgage loan was insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Her Legal Aid attorney, Phil Althouse, knew that federal regulations related to FHA loans required Ms.Glover’s lender consider the other household
income. He also identified other violations of Ms. Glover’s legal rights by the lender and promptly filed motions that prevented a foreclosure judgment from being finalized. Mr. Althouse knew that there was more to be done for Ms.
Glover and advised her to file a charge of discrimination against the mortgage lender with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. Ms. Glover’s mortgage lender signed a settlement agreement with Ms. Glover and the Commission. As part of the settlement Ms. Glover obtained a loan modification. The settlement also resulted in the monitoring of FHA lenders services in Ohio.
But the lender failed to adhere to the terms of the agreement so Mr. Althouse requested that the case be re-opened by the Commission. The Commission referred the matter to the Ohio Attorney General’s office for further action which helped resolve all issues to Ms. Glover’s satisfaction.
“Ms. Glover had the benefit of legal counsel. Other borrowers may not be as fortunate,” states attorney Althouse. As a result of the Ms. Glover’s case, the Civil Rights Section of the Ohio Attorney General’s office now closely collaborates with legal aid programs around the state to better protect the civil rights of low-income clients.
Ms. Glover was able to secure a fair loan modification agreement and hold the mortgage servicer accountable for acting in bad faith. More importantly, the support of Legal Aid allowed Ms. Glover to keep her home. “It was scary and frustrating,” recalls Ms. Glover. “I didn’t know who to turn to, but Mr. Althouse was great. He put his all into helping me.” She is looking forward to celebrating the holidays in her home.
Widow’s Lorain County Home Saved
Gwendolyn Frazier and her husband worked hard all their lives and paid off the mortgage on their Elyria home. Her husband took out a consolidation loan with OneMain Financial, but they paid their bills.
Her husband passed away in 2013. After that, when mail came addressed to him, she marked it “deceased” and sent it back – including mail from
CitiFinancial. She had no business with CitiFinancial and thought it was junk mail. She didn’t know OneMain was connected to
CitiFinancial, until the
bank sent a certified letter with foreclosure papers.
“It was such a burden,” she recalls. “I’m not somebody who’s sitting around not making my payments. ”
She called and called and called for months, but couldn’t get any information about how to pay the loan. The home went into foreclosure in 2014 and in a phone trial, the magistrate told her she was “out of luck” because she was not named on the loan.
Ms. Frazier sought help from Legal Aid. Volunteer attorney Kathleen Amerkhanian of Kryszak & Associates agreed to take the case pro bono. Legal Aid attorney Marley Eiger coached volunteer Amerkhanian on new Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) rules that require the bank to not only to accept payments from the “successor-in-interest” but also to provide information about assumptions and modification options to the loan.
“Ms. Frazier needed a lawyer to frame the case as a legal issue and provide a basis for why they should look at loss mitigation,” says Ms. Amerkhanian. “By couching it in the correct terms, the court took notice.” Ms. Amerkhanian got the case out of foreclosure. In mediation, she pointed out that the bank was not in compliance with federal CFPB regulations. She helped Ms. Frazier compile all the documentation needed – until finally the bank offered an affordable plan.
Thanks to her volunteer lawyer, the foreclosure was dismissed early in 2016.
“The ability to really make an impact on somebody who desperately needs your help is very rewarding,” says Ms. Amerkhanian. When you take a case from Legal Aid, there is a lot of support. Marley Eiger provided a lot of information and lent her expertise, and that was invaluable.”
“The lender was ignorant of the law, indifferent to the homeowner’s compelling hardship and tried to sabotage her,” says Legal Aid attorney Marley Eiger. “Not one thing about this case was easy or routine, but Kathleen was very persistent.”
Thanks to Legal Aid, Ms. Frazier’s home is safe and she can enjo y her hobbies of cooking and volunteering at her church. And, most importantly – she can care for her family in her home without worry.
Legal Aid’s work to ensure shelter in Lorain County is supported by the Nord Family Foundation and the Community
Foundation of Lorain County.