How legal representation for tenants in housing court can affect eviction outcomes in Cleveland

CLEVELAND -

There is a four-letter word causing a lot of heartache in Cleveland: Rent.

Failure to pay it could land you in eviction court, and the consequences can have a ripple effect in our community.

As part of our year-long project, Cleveland Abandoned, we’re looking into a proposal that's making a difference in some of the nation's biggest cities.

You cannot get an eviction off your record. It can haunt you; just like the experience itself.

"It's overwhelming and very stressful,” said Ayanna Williams. “I have a six-year-old and have to be put out of somewhere I've resided for a year."

She agreed to speak with us before her eviction hearing, but as Cleveland Housing Court started she had to go.

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The courtroom was packed.

Ayanna sat stoically with her mother by her side. The time came. She and her landlord faced the judge. They were referred to a mediator.

Evictions are civil cases, not criminal. That means a tenant doesn't have a legal right to representation, but rarely do you see a landlord without one.

"Housing is a basic human need," said Hazel Remesch, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.

She says only about one percent of tenants facing eviction in Cleveland have an attorney.

“And of the one percent that we do represent, we prevent 99 percent of evictions,” she added.

Legal Aid provides no-cost legal advice and assistance to those in need.

Last year, Legal Aid says it handled 1,209 rental housing cases that impacted 3,076 people – 46 percent of whom they say were children.

“It’s really important that a tenant have representation so they can participate meaningfully in the eviction, and know their rights," said Remesch.

Remesch has been awarded a fellowship with the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland to explore the right to counsel in eviction cases.

She says similar programs have launched in Washington, D.C. and New York City.

“In New York City they noticed a reduction in evictions by 24 percent, and they increased representation by 27 percent," she said.

Remesch says this is not an indictment of our housing court, that provides a number of resources to tenants.

“It is a court that's really committed to the community, in my opinion,” she said.

Rather, it's a way to offset the damaging consequences an eviction can have on an individual, a family and a city.

“The cost to society when someone is evicted is way higher than the actual cost to house that person in stable, decent, affordable housing,” said Remesch.

Back at housing court, the mediator helped Ayanna prevent a judgment against her, but the ordeal had taken a toll. She was too distraught to speak afterward, but said she and her son had a safe place to go.

So, who would pay for legal representation for tenants? Remesch says it could come from a number of sources, including foundation funding, but again, she's just studying it here right now.

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