The Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland’s fellowship, known as The Innovation Mission, is a powerful opportunity for accomplished professionals to advance their innovative ideas to change the trajectory of poverty in Cleveland. The five professionals we selected for The Innovation Mission began the fellowship in November 2017. We will be sharing their journey over the course of 18 months. First up in our fellows series: Hazel Remesch, supervising attorney of the housing practice at The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.
You have the right to an attorney.
We’re all familiar with the Miranda rights, whether, like me, you’re an experienced attorney, or if you’ve only caught a few episodes of Law & Order. However, this right to legal representation only applies to serious criminal cases – not evictions.
If housing is a basic human need, why isn’t legal representation to preserve an individual’s housing a basic right?
At the Cleveland Municipal Court, more than 10,000 evictions are filed by landlords every year. In 2016, 4,576 individuals and 1,682 families entered into emergency shelter in Cuyahoga County. Many of these Clevelanders faced eviction on their path to homelessness, and eviction records often prevent tenants from gaining access to future housing. Only about 1 percent of those county residents who face eviction are represented by legal counsel.
An eviction can be devastating and crippling. It leads to homelessness, stress and psychological trauma. Families of color, families headed by women, children and the elderly suffer the consequences of eviction disproportionately. Children, in particular, suffer the trauma of eviction for a lifetime, as it causes disruption in education, which leads to school instability.
Eviction leaves families and individuals exposed and vulnerable, a status compounded by the fact that many can barely get by financially, because more than one-third of all Cleveland residents live in poverty.
As an attorney focused on housing for almost 10 years, I see day in and day out the tremendous legal hurdles that residents facing eviction encounter. The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland is the only Cleveland resource that provides free legal counsel to low-income people facing housing insecurity. In 2016, Cleveland Legal Aid took on 1,280 housing law cases – only a fraction of those who applied to Legal Aid for assistance. More than 50 percent had to be turned away for lack of resources. And then there are the hundreds, maybe thousands more who don’t even reach out to Legal Aid in the first place.
In Ohio, a landlord cannot physically remove a tenant from the premises, terminate utilities or change the locks to force a tenant to move out. Instead, a landlord must file a legal complaint against the tenant; go to court, be granted a judgment (if they have been found to have the right to evict) and then follow the proper eviction procedure.
Tenants have a right to this fair eviction process. Tenants can also take legal action if a landlord is not making necessary repairs or does not return their security deposit in a timely fashion. But tenants often don’t know what their rights are and therefore cannot participate meaningfully in the eviction. They may well be ignored without the representation of a knowledgeable attorney. Access to legal representation in an eviction case can make the difference between keeping a home or losing it, or keeping a family together versus having it split apart.
Just a few years ago in New York City, the rate of tenant representation in eviction cases was also about 1 percent. However, after establishing a pilot program offering legal representation in housing cases, New York City increased its representation to 27 percent, and evictions dropped by 24 percent.
As part of The Innovation Mission, I am exploring how to increase access to legal representation in housing cases for those Clevelanders who so desperately need it.
I am proposing a pilot program that would provide legal representation to tenants in eviction cases – where their most basic human need is at risk. I am also exploring the sealing of eviction records, because tenants are often blacklisted from the rental market after an eviction has been filed regardless of the outcome of the eviction.
All our other community investments—to educate, feed, and job-train—are all in vain if we cannot stabilize housing. A right to counsel for those facing eviction is a way to protect not only housing stability, but also protect hundreds of other community investments to ensure Northeast Ohio’s growth.
I look forward to sharing my journey with you.