Advocates for free eviction help urge increased commitment by the City of Cleveland to fully funding the program
by Chuck Hoven
United Way of Greater Cleveland, the Cleveland Legal Aid Society and CHN Housing Partners have teamed up in a public private partnership with the City of Cleveland to offer free help to qualified Clevelanders facing eviction.
Two programs paired together, the Right to Counsel Program of Legal Aid and Rental Assistance Program at CHN Housing Partners are successful in helping those eligible to stay in their homes and avoid the destabilization and life altering impact of eviction. Program advocates from United Way, Legal Aid and CHN Housing Partners would all like to see the City of Cleveland increase its commitment to these programs and expand eligibility to more households facing eviction.
Julie Wisneski, Director of Housing Stability at United Way, says tenants facing eviction can seek help at the website: www.freeevictionhelp.org or by calling 211. She says United Way, as part of its commitment to market the program, works with Cleveland Housing Court to insert a notice about assistance programs with each eviction notice.
One of the programs available to tenants facing eviction is the City of Cleveland Right to Counsel program run by Cleveland Legal Aid. Melanie Shakarian, an attorney at Cleveland Legal Aid Society, says that prior to the Right to Counsel program less than 1% of the 9,000 households facing eviction, in the year before the program started, had access to council. Now, she says 25 – 30% of Cleveland tenants facing eviction have access to legal counsel. Shakarian urges tenants to call Legal Aid when they are worried about an eviction, even before an eviction process has started. She says there is a lot Legal Aid attorneys can do to help, especially with all the rental assistance money now available.
Shakarian says, currently the Right to Counsel program is only available to households with income at 100% of the poverty level or less who have children in the home. Sharkarian would like to see eligibility expanded to all households at 200 percent of poverty or less – including senior citizens and households without children.
Currently, the cost of the Right to Counsel Program in the City of Cleveland is $2 million per year. $300,000 of that amount is contributed by the City of Cleveland through the Community Development Block Grant funding with the remaining of the funding coming from philanthropic sources. To fully fund the program to include all households at 200% of poverty or less, Shakarian estimates it would cost $4 million per year. She would like to see the City of Cleveland fully fund the program with public dollars as a long term right for all Cleveland households with incomes at 200% of poverty or below regardless of household composition.
Shakarian says when a Legal Aid attorney provides help to a tenant, they are successful more than 90% of the time. Shakarian says evaluation of the Right to Counsel program shows its success in helping with housing stability (allowing families to stay in their home), increasing healthy conditions in housing (which sometimes involves a family moving out of an unhealthy house to a house that is in better condition), documenting the status of housing stock, making sure tenants get security deposits back- (crucial in getting new housing), providing tenants with rental assistance, removing evictions from tenants’ records (a huge barrier to future housing), and holding landlords accountable.
Wisneski says Cleveland Housing Court sends United Way a weekly list of those households facing eviction. She says each week there are roughly 125 to 170 households on the list. Wisneski says United Way sends a letter to each household on the eviction list describing the Right to Counsel Program. Cleveland Housing Court also includes in each eviction notice contact information about eviction prevention help available that is printed in both English and Spanish, said Wisneski.
Citing data collected by United Way while monitoring the program, Wisneski says two of the three zip codes in the City of Cleveland currently with the highest eviction rates are zip codes 44102 and 44109. (Both are in the Plain Press service area.) The zip code in Cleveland with the third highest eviction rate is 44105. From June 30, 2020 to July 1 of 2021 there were 954 evictions filed in zip code 44102 and 732 evictions filed in zip code 44109. The largest percentage of residents represented by legal counsel are also in those zip codes, which Wisneski says is evidence that the Right to Counsel program is reaching people in need.
Current eviction data is different from pre-COVID eviction data. Citing pre-COVID statistics from 2019, Shakarian said 90% of households facing eviction in the City of Cleveland were black female headed households with a child or children. Shakarian says Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) has not been filing any eviction notices because of COVID-19 for its subsidized properties. Shakarian said prior to the onset of the pandemic, the majority of clients facing eviction were from CMHA subsidized households. Wisneski says that applications for rental assistance have also helped to prevent many evictions from being filed in some low-income neighborhoods of Cleveland.
One of the facets of the Right to Counsel program is a referral to resources that will help tenants pay their rent. In addition to rental assistance to families with children living below the poverty line, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) provides funds for rental assistance to tenants who cannot pay their rent due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their lives.
The Rental Assistance Program of CHN Housing Partners assists tenants with applications for federal rent relief dollars from the American Rescue Act. Laurie Leverette, Senior Manager of the Rental Assistance Program of CHN Housing Partners, says CHN Housing Partners prioritizes rental assistance applications for households that have demonstrated they have a court or set-out date scheduled. Leverette said that CHN Housing Partners also recently started to notify landlords when tenants submit an application for rent relief, with the hope that this will induce landlords not to evict the tenants. “If we can get landlords to understand that their tenants have applied and help is on the way, it can likely reduce the incidences of landlords filing or sometimes have the landlord drop the filing,” Leverette said.
Shakarian said she recently received a call from a small landlord thanking Legal Aid for its involvement in an eviction case she had filed. Her tenant, a single father with a child, was six months behind in his rent. The landlord said that Legal Aid’s involvement in the eviction case resulted in the tenant successfully applying for and receiving federal rental assistance. The landlord said that not only was the back rent paid quickly, but also several months of rent were paid in advance. The landlord thanked Legal Aid for its involvement in helping her to collect rent and pay her property taxes on the long-time family home she inherited and was renting out.
Leverette says data collected by CHN Housing Partners on those that have applied for rental assistance, supports the call for expansion of the Right to Counsel program to include families without children. Leverette says of the 28,000 households that have applied for rental assistance since the American Rescue Act rent relief began, over 12,000 of them are households with no school age children.
“From our perspective at Legal Aid we are really worried about vulnerable elders who don’t have children in the home and making sure they have this right,” said Shakarian.
Shakarian says Legal Aid is planning for when the eviction moratorium comes to an end and when there is less rental assistance available. These plans include talks with area municipal courts related to creating an eviction diversion program. Some ideas include providing mediation services and rental assistance prior to an eviction being filed to divert cases that are solvable outside of the formal court process.
Wisneski says that both Right to Counsel and Rental Assistance have been important tools in helping to weather Cleveland’s eviction crises. She would like to see both Right to Counsel and Rental Assistance continued to be paired together to provide assistance to Cleveland tenants and create stable housing for communities.
In advocating for the expansion of the Right to Counsel program, Shakarian noted the long-term benefits of Cleveland residents having the right to counsel when faced with a case in Cleveland Housing Court. “This is about democratic engagement, which directly ensures we have rule of law in our democracy,” she said.
Speaking to members of the Neighborhood and Community Media Association of Greater Cleveland, Sharakian said “All of you are doing what you do to empower and engage the community through your writing. For us (Legal Aid) it is the legal system. If people feel shut out by this third branch of government (the Court System), it is disempowering. And this is about ensuring democratic engagement long term – we really believe that. This ripple effect of our representation, the rental assistance CHN Housing Partners provides, and the empowerment United Way provides, means somebody stays in their home; they are more likely then, to have their kids stay in the same school; they are more likely to plant flowers in their yard and vote in the next election. And, this is why this work creates such a powerful ripple effect on our community. We in Cleveland are at this very important crossroads, making decisions on how we are going to spend this American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding. We firmly believe housing is of utmost importance.”
“This is an effective program already and we need to scale it up” Sharakian said. “This is the time to think about how to scale it up. United Way, CHN Housing Partners and Legal Aid working together have created a model that others in the country are looking to. As this right was created, it is a limited right — 100% of poverty and below with kids in the home. There are other vulnerable people that are right now ignored. Legal Aid is still trying to help as many as possible with other funds and work that we are doing. But the right is not expansive, it doesn’t cover everyone. Now is the time to look at where we are seeing success in housing stability. Right now, the impact we are having for those whom Right to Counsel touches, it’s impressive.”
Wisneski says, “People are calling from all over the country wanting to talk about the public private partnership. Because government is not investing in this whole line item of Right to Counsel, it is taking Legal Aids and United Ways around the country to implement this. And I really think we reach more people and more effectively with our partnership. And with CHN Housing Partners providing rental assistance, it is an effective model. If only we can scale it up and bring in more people, people like seniors, working age adults, transition youths, people who are left out of this, it would be incredible for Cleveland and our communities.”
Both Shakarian and Wisneski urged Clevelanders to tell their political leaders of the importance of providing federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars or other City of Cleveland funds to address these programs that help provide housing stability to families by preventing evictions.
Editor’s Note: Information about free eviction help in Cleveland is available online at www.freeevictionhelp.org or by referral from United Way by calling 211. Other important phone numbers are: Free Eviction Help at 216-861-5835; Legal Aid Society of Cleveland Traditional Intake Line at 216-861-5835; and CHN Housing Partners at 216-672-3553.
This article resulted from a press conference via zoom organized by the Neighborhood and Community Media Association (NCMA) of Greater Cleveland. The Plain Press is a member of NCMA and participated in the press conference.