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The Housing Justice Alliance Works for a “Right to Counsel” for Cleveland Tenants

Posted June 10, 2019
11:05 am

“You have the right to an attorney.” We have all heard this familiar phrase on TV and in the movies when someone is arrested by police. In real life, the United States constitution promises people a right to an attorney when someone is accused of a serious crime and cannot afford an attorney. Many people do not realize that in most civil legal cases, for example when a person is being evicted, they do not have a right to an attorney.  There is no constitutional right to legal counsel in housing cases — even if the cases lead to homelessness.

The Housing Justice Alliance is working to create a right to counsel for tenants in Cleveland.  The Housing Justice Alliance will ensure that all low-income tenants in Cleveland who face eviction have legal representation in civil housing court. By establishing a right to free, high-quality legal representation, the Housing Justice Alliance will secure safe, affordable and stable housing for low income Cleveland tenants.

In the City of Cleveland, between 9,000 and 10,000 evictions are filed every year. Tenants are represented by an attorney in only 1% to 2% of cases.[1] In contrast, landlords have attorneys in approximately 90% of cases, according to national estimates.[2]  Eviction hearings typically last less than five minutes and tenants often lose.

Research shows that evictions lead to devastating consequences, such as:

  • Employment loss (e.g., missed work due to attending trial and moving);
  • Health problems (e.g., hospitalizations, depression, other illnesses);
  • Lower achievement and higher drop-out rates for school-aged children and youth;
  • Increased use of all social service systems;
  • Problems finding housing in the future;
  • Less stable, less safe neighborhoods.

Cleveland is one of the cities leading national efforts to protect tenants through a right to counsel. 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.[3] As a result, New York City is expected to save $320 million annually.[4] Evictions in New York City have dropped by 34% and, in the first year since implementation, 84% of households represented in court by lawyers were able to avoid displacement.[5]

In Phase I, the Housing Justice Alliance will aim to increase legal representation for Cleveland tenants from 1-2% to 10%. The program is scheduled to launch later in 2019.

This article was written by Hazel Remesch and appeared in The Alert: Volume 35, Issue 1. 


[2] Engler, “Connecting Self-Representation to Civil Gideon,” Fordham Urban Law Review (2010): 38–92