Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a five-part series about the challenges low-income renters face and potential ways to address them. The series is supported by Wayfinders Ohio. To read part one, click here.
CLEVELAND — Both landlords and tenants have rights and responsibilities under Ohio law.
Mansfield attorney Robert Goldberger believes more people need to know about them.
Goldberger arrived in Mansfield fresh out of law school in 1977. After practicing law for more than 40 years, he has seen his share of civil cases. He’s represented tenants and landlords alike.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard in court, ‘Well, I didn’t pay the rent because he didn’t fix the fill-in-the-blank,’” Goldberger said.
“That’s not good enough. There’s a process you have to follow.”
The Mansfield Municipal Court had 759 eviction filings in 2022, according to data from the its online docket. Filings were higher prior to the COVID-19 pandemic — 983 in 2019 and 1,068 in 2018.
Magistrate John McCollister hears eviction cases for the Mansfield Municipal Court, which oversees most of the county. (Evictions in Shelby and some surrounding townships are handled by the Shelby Municipal Court).
McCollister said tenants are rarely represented in eviction cases, but landlords are often. Part of the reason is that rentals are frequently owned by limited liability corporations (LLCs), which must have a legal representative in court.
Eviction is the most common reason a landlord and tenant may end up in court, but it’s not the only one. Landlords can file a lawsuit against a tenant for property damages or money lost after a tenant breaks a lease. Tenants can file against a landlord for failing to make repairs or improper retaliation.
McCollister and Goldberger both recommended communicating with landlords whenever possible. Sometimes, things can be worked out outside of the courtroom.
If an eviction is filed, McCollister recommended tenants who believe they have a legitimate defense try to get a lawyer as soon as possible.
“They shouldn’t wait until they come to court to begin to investigate what they need to do to get counsel,” he said.
‘Housing is a basic human right’
Goldberger said in his experience, landlords are more likely to understand their rights and have legal representation.
Since most landlord-tenant cases are civil, rather than criminal, defendants are not guaranteed an attorney.
Legal aid programs can fill in the gap, offering counsel to people who can’t afford it.
In cities like Cleveland and Toledo, local governments are declaring access to counsel a right for low-income families facing eviction.
“(Right-to-counsel) is a big movement right now nationally,” said Veronica Martinez, managing attorney for special projects at Legal Aid of Western Ohio. “It kind of stems from the idea that housing is a basic human right and having funding to protect that and address that is important.”
Cleveland’s city council passed “right-to-counsel” legislation in October 2019. The legislation provides free legal assistance to low-income Cleveland residents facing eviction if there is a child in the household. The ordinance defines low-income as having an annual gross income not exceeding 100 percent of the federal poverty guidelines — $30,000 for a family of four in 2023.
“Cleveland is only the fourth city in the country to legislate a right to counsel,” said Melanie Shakarian, the director of development and communications for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland (LASC). “A few more have happened since ours was enacted.”
The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland administers Right to Counsel Cleveland (RTCC). It launched in July 2020 with funding from the city, philanthropic organizations and private donors.
According to Shakarian, the city of Cleveland currently contributes about 25 percent of the funds needed to run the program. The rest comes from philanthropic organizations like United Way and the Cleveland Foundation.
“(The city) didn’t have all the money at the time to push it out and get it going,” Shakarian said. “What we’re working towards now is a path towards further sustainability just from government sources.”
Once the RTCC program was established, the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland partnered with numerous community organizations to spread the word.
“We worked collaboratively with the court to make sure when eviction summons go out, there’s a stuffer the court puts inside the envelope that’s mailed directly to all the households,” Shakarian said.
“United Way does a separate letter to all individuals at the address of that eviction filing, letting them know what their rights are.”
LASC also educated staff at other health and human service agencies, public libraries and within the local religious community so they could make referrals.
RTCC boosted legal representation for eviction defendants
Prior to RTCC’s inception, only about one to two percent of tenants were represented by an attorney in eviction proceedings in Cleveland, according to the city’s municipal court docket.
By 2022, 16 percent of tenants facing eviction in Cleveland had representation in court.
An independent evaluation by global advisory firm Stout found that between July 1, 2020 and Dec. 31, 2022, approximately 79 percent of all eligible households took advantage of the program. Approximately 81 percent of RTCC clients were female and 72 percent were Black. Many were living in substandard housing.
According to the Stout report, 82 percent of RTCC clients indicated there were defective conditions in their home like plumbing issues, pest infestation and wall, floor or ceiling damage. Approximately 96 percent of these clients said they had made their rental property owner aware of the issues.
RTCC achieved 86 percent of clients’ case goals
Stout’s analysis of the program’s first 2 1/2 years also sheds light on its impact so far. During that time, RTCC staff were able to achieve 86 percent of their clients’ case goals.
The most common goal was preventing an eviction judgment or involuntary move. RTCC managed to achieve it 90 percent of the time, according to Stout.
Meeting this goal didn’t always mean clients remained in their residence. In fact, only 56 percent of RTCC clients indicated they wanted to stay in their home.
But in many cases, RTCC clients were able to avoid a formal eviction judgment, get their security deposit back or have extra time to move.
Even when a tenant leaves, avoiding a formal eviction judgment has its benefits. Having an eviction on record can negatively impact a person’s credit score, their ability to find new housing and even their job prospects.
Ensuring a fair case
Shakarian said the program sometimes identified cases where landlords hadn’t given proper eviction notice or executed paperwork correctly. The Stout report found that approximately 56 percent of RTCC clients in 2022 had “potential legal defenses” in their cases.
Shakarian said “bad-actor landlords” have used housing courts and eviction as part of their business model for years, not just in Ohio but across the country.
“If nobody shows up to defend their eviction, those deficiencies just go unchecked,” she said. “By showing up and especially with an attorney by your side, there’s a lot that can be done.”
Shakarian said having representation doesn’t just lead to better outcomes. She believes there are psychological benefits as well.
“What we do through this process is preserve dignity for individuals, so their rights are protected, they have hope, they have choices,” she said. “Ultimately that’s what people want. They want agency so they can make a choice.”
What about landlords?
Shakarian said the program has put “bad landlords” on notice that someone is now watching them, but the reverse is also true.
When RTCC started, Shakarian anticipated there would be pushback from local landlords. Now, she said many of them have benefited as well.
In cases of legitimate eviction, Shakarian said having a lawyer on each side can lead to a quicker resolution and less in legal fees.
“If somebody doesn’t show up in court or is unrepresented and tries to represent themselves, the court has different responsibilities and obligations to ensure fairness through that process, so it actually takes a longer time to handle an eviction,” Shakarian said.
“It’s been really wonderful to hear feedback from both landlords and attorneys who represent landlords about what a Godsend this entire program has been.”
Many landlords also ended up receiving back rent owed after RTCC lawyers connected clients with rental assistance programs.
“Ultimately, landlords are running a business,” Shakarian said. “Through our representation of tenants, I think there’s been a realization in the landlord community that this is actually really good for the landlords who are good business owners.”
Ken Surratt is United Way of Greater Cleveland’s Vice President of Community Investment. Before that, he spent four years as Deputy Director of Housing and Community Development for Cuyahoga County.
Surratt said he believes having rental assistance available has been a key component of making RTCC work.
He said the end of pandemic-related rental assistance could impact the program’s outcomes.
“Having those dollars allows for better outcomes for both landlords and the tenants themselves,” he said. “Getting landlords to agree — if they knew they would get paid, there’s a source of funding — it definitely was helpful.”
Sharakian said she thinks it’s too early to tell whether the phasing out of COVID-19 relief will have an impact. She pointed out that while there is less aid, there are also fewer people financially impacted by the pandemic.
“For so much of the rental assistance that was available, (renters) had to have a COVID nexus,” she said. “People had to demonstrate that COVID affected (their) work.”
Legal aid access can have widespread social, economic benefits
In addition to helping landlords families, supporters of RTCC believe the program provides broad social and economic benefits.
Stout’s analysis also estimates that in the program’s first 18 months, Cleveland and Cuyahoga County likely realized economic and fiscal benefits of at least $11.8 million. Over the same period, the total investment in RTCC was $4.5 million.
Stout argues that when families avoid eviction or disruptive moves, they can take time to find housing in their community, which helps that community retain local income and sales taxes. They are also less likely to be homeless or reside in an emergency shelter. Children are less likely to switch school systems or be placed in foster care.
These factors have deeply personal impacts as well as large scale social ones. Stout estimated that during its first 18 months, RTCC program outcomes preserved at least $4.3 million in economic value for Cleveland and Cuyahoga County by retaining residents. The group also estimated cost savings of:
- Economic value preserved by retaining residents, $4.3 million to $5.1 million.
- Cost savings related to housing social safety net responses, $2.9 million to $3.5 million.
- Sustained education funding for children in Cleveland Metropolitan School District schools, $2.4 million to $2.9 million.
- Out-of-home foster care placements, $1.7 million to $2 million.
- Cost savings related to Medicaid spending on health care, $400,000 to $500,000.
Stout also said there are benefits that can’t be quantified with data, but are just as important. These include:
- The education, juvenile justice and child welfare costs associated with children experiencing homelessness.
- The effects of stabilized employment and income, and the economic and tax benefits to the state associated with consumer spending.
- The negative impact of eviction on tenants’ credit score, ability to re-rent and the potential loss of a subsidized housing voucher.
- The cost of providing public benefits when jobs are lost due to eviction or the eviction process.
- The cost of mental health care.
- Certain additional costs associated with homelessness, such as additional law enforcement and incarceration costs.
- The cost of family, community and neighborhood instability.
- Preservation of financial and personal assets.
- A reduction, over time, in the number of eviction cases filed result in improved use of Cleveland Municipal Court resources.
For reasons like these, Shakarian said local legislators are having conversations about expanding the program.
According to Stout’s analysis, RTCC’s current eligibility guidelines are more stringent than similar initiatives across the country.
Shakarian and Surratt said eliminating the child requirement and raising the income threshold could impact people like single veterans, the elderly, the working poor and people whose adult children live with them due to a disability.
Surratt said he’d also like to see other initiatives compliment RTCC, like a mediation program, better codes enforcement and more robust tenants education. He believes all these efforts could help prevent eviction proceedings in the first place.
Legal aid options in Richland County
Local legal aid isn’t as accessible as it used to be.
Goldberger spent his first 10 years in Richland County working for a legal aid organization. The non-profit firm had paid attorneys serving Richland, Ashland and Crawford counties. According to Goldberger, it closed in the 1990s due to a lack of funding.
Local paralegal Karen Osborne founded the Richland County Legal Clinic in 2018. The organization connects indigent clients with volunteer attorneys in the area for free consultations.
“It was a humble beginning by me just having calls at the office and people needing help desperately,” Osborne said.
Osborne said the clinic hasn’t dealt with many eviction or landlord-tenant cases. Most clients seek counsel on domestic or probate matters.
The clinic is open by appointment on the fourth Monday of every month from 5 to 7 p.m. There are four volunteer attorneys.
She hopes to continue growing the program, which operates out of First United Methodist Church. Her biggest obstacle is recruiting volunteer attorneys.
“I would love to have 6 to 12 (attorneys),” she said. “Sometimes we’re packed. I try to schedule the clients in at half-hour increments.”
She also said bringing a full-time non-profit firm to Richland County is an idea she’s open to exploring in the future.
“It’s a possibility,” she said. “To get to that point, I would have to have some guidance.”
LAWO and Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE) provide assistance for low-income residents in a variety of civil matters, including consumer and financial, education, healthcare, disability rights, domestic violence, family law, immigration and estate planning.
Martinez said the firm used to have an office in Richland County. It closed during the Great Recession due to budget constraints.
Despite this, Richland County residents can still get legal help. Attorneys provide assistance over-the-phone or travel to meet with clients as needed.
“Distance from our office isn’t something that we weigh when deciding whether or not to take a case,” Martinez said. “What really is the driving factor is just that we don’t have enough resources for the need.”
Last year, LAWO received about 15,000 calls for assistance across its 32-county service area. The agency has about 50 full-time legal professionals.
“With the limited resources and limited advocates we have to prioritize what we can take,” Martinez said.
Legal Aid of Western Ohio (LAWO) administers Toledo’s right to counsel program with funding from the city. The program closed 139 cases last year according to Taylor Burns, a supervising attorney at LAWO. Almost 90 percent of clients were either able stay in their home or secure extra time to move out.
Burns and Martinez said the LAWO would likely be able to administer a Right-to-Counsel program in Richland County if funding were available.
“We absolutely have the infrastructure,” Burns said. “We have the intake system, we have the case management system.”
McCollister said he believes Richland County would benefit from more legal aid, right-to-counsel legislation or even a mediation program.
“Of course, I think the ultimate hurdle that you would have to clear would be the funding,” he said. “As far as the legislation is concerned to support such a program, I’ll leave that to the legislative body and voters and counsel.”
While such programs would likely be beneficial, McCollister said none of them would be a silver bullet. Most of the cases he presides over end in eviction, typically because the tenant can’t or hasn’t paid rent. Often, non-payment of rent is due to situations like a job loss or personal or family illness.
“If it’s shown by a preponderance of the evidence of the rent was not paid on time, then the court’s hands are tied,” McCollister said. “As long as the plaintiff filed the appropriate procedures, filed the appropriate notices, the eviction must be granted.”
In the absence of rental assistance funds, McCollister said he’d like to see more emergency housing available for families faced with eviction.
“There are some real heart-wrenching stories that come through the eviction court,” McCollister said. “At least you would know that they wouldn’t be on the street or living in their car. There would be a place for them to go.”