Cleveland Council Examining Right To Counsel For Tenants

A panel of elected officials from New York and Cleveland discuss "right to counsel" in housing courts.
Moderator Darrielle Snipes, New York councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, New York councilman Mark Levine, Cleveland councilman Anthony Brancatelli, Cleveland council president Kevin Kelley [City Club of Cleveland / ideastream]
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Cleveland City Council is examining a program to offer free attorneys for poor people facing eviction in housing court. Council members from Cleveland and New York discussed the idea at a City Club forum Wednesday.   

Cleveland sees 9,000 to 10,000 evictions a year. Of the tenants who appear in housing court, less than 2 percent have a lawyer. 

Ward 12 Councilman Tony Brancatelli says he grew up in a poor family that had to move many times, but he says things have gotten worse because many landlords no longer live in the area.

“They are no longer part of the community and they are just churning and turning over families at a rapid pace,” Brancatelli told the City Club audience. “Which is why in schools like Slavic Village you’ll see an elementary school with 400 kids turn 30-40 percent of that school in one year, in and out of that particular school.” 

The idea that evictions create homelessness and a long list of other social problems has council members engaged in finding solutions. 

Council President Kevin Kelley says local studies from Case Western Reserve University and the Legal Aid Society are underway. He expects Cleveland will adopt phase one of a housing court Right to Counsel program in the coming year.  

“Many people ask, ‘What’s it going to cost?’” said Kelley. “I think the question should be, ‘What’s it going to cost to do nothing?’” 

New York City was the first in the nation to provide free legal counsel. Supporters determined the cost of providing a lawyer for one year was one-twentieth the cost of keeping a family in a shelter.  

New York Councilman Mark Levine told the forum it also caused some landlords to drop their cases.

“It has had such an impact to have an attorney who knows the system, knows the law, might know the judge,” said Levine. “We have seen in our first year that 84 percent of the tenants who have an attorney through this program stay in their homes.”

Levine says some landlords are feeling the pressure to bring their properties up to code and tenants are learning about renters’ rights.

The New York supporters not only gathered data on the cost of homeless or rootless families, they also enlisted members of the clergy, senior citizens, unions, and school officials to convince the city administration to approve the program.

A number of Cleveland city council members at the forum showed their support.

“Do we have a quorum?” asked New York councilwoman Vanessa Gibson.

“Can we pass this bill right now?” laughed Levine.   

An inspiration for the forum was Matthew Desmond's book "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City".

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