A woman holds up a poster at a rally for housing reform in Columbus, Ohio, in June. (Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Right to counsel could save hundreds of Akron residents from eviction. Will the city fund it?

By Abbey Marshall, TDS Staff Reporter, and Conor Morris, for The Devil Strip

The city is considering a $750,000 proposal put forth by an Akron City Council member and tenant advocacy groups for a pilot program that would provide tenants facing eviction with a lawyer in court proceedings — a move that could potentially save hundreds from being evicted from their homes.

If implemented, Akron, a city with the worst eviction rate in the state and among the highest in large American cities, would become the eighth major U.S. city to provide some form of a right to counsel for tenants.

“When a housing provider has a lawyer most of the time and a tenant does not, it’s a really disempowering experience,” said attorney and Akron City Council member Shammas Malik, who represents Ward 8. “It’s kind of traumatizing to stand in front of a judge and not know what words you’re supposed to use to try to keep yourself in your house.”

Malik wants that to change. With support of tenant advocacy groups like Community Legal Aid in Akron, Malik submitted a proposal in June to Mayor Dan Horrigan’s office to use funding from the $145 million grant the city received as part of the federal COVID-19 relief funds to pilot a right to counsel program for tenants facing eviction. The mayor’s office gave a presentation regarding the processes of spending those funds to Akron City Council on Sept. 27, but did not present specific programs or legislation.

Read more about housing in Akron.

If approved, the $750,000 proposal would fund a team that would represent between 360 and 420 tenants in Akron over the course of a two-year pilot period. Those numbers are based on staffing levels in a similar program in Cleveland, which has touted promising results in the year since its inception.

An eviction can have significant cascading negative effects on families, said Andrew Neuhauser, a managing attorney with Community Legal Aid in Akron. And Akron has the highest eviction rate in the state, with nearly 3,600 evictions alone during the last “normal” year on record, 2019. 

The federal eviction moratorium during 2020 and half of 2021 lowered that number, but Neuhauser expected evictions to significantly increase in the city after the moratorium was ended by the U.S. Supreme Court in late August. There’s no clear data yet available on if that’s happened so far in Akron.

There are definite signs that a right to counsel program helps keep people in their homes. Prior to the Cleveland’s program’s inception in July 2020, only an average of 2% of tenants had legal representation in Cleveland Housing Court, said Colleen Cotter, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.

Akron probably has a similar rate, Neuhauser said. Meanwhile, most landlords can afford access to a lawyer.

“It’s pretty intimidating for tenants to be in there by themselves,” Neuhauser said. 

Cleveland courts saw a significant uptick in residents getting legal representation after the right to counsel program was implemented there: from 2% to 20% of tenants. 

Meanwhile, in the first six months of the program, about 93% of the Cleveland right to counsel clients who faced an eviction or involuntary move were able to avoid being displaced because of the legal representation they received. A similarly significant number of tenants were able to win more time to move out if they needed it.

Similarly, since a right to counsel program was implemented in New York City in 2017, 84% of tenants with representation facing evictions were able to remain in their home, while the eviction rate declined by about 30% overall, according to a report from NYC’s Office of Civil Justice.

Unlike Cleveland’s program, which was adopted as a city ordinance, Akron’s program would strictly serve as a pilot program for Community Legal Aid to represent a limited number of tenants over the course of two years. 

The proposal also requests funds to support a position based in Legal Aid to build a coalition of nonprofit and government organizations to fund and support a permanent right to counsel ordinance in Akron at the end of the two year pilot program.

At present, Community Legal Aid spokesperson Maria Duvuvuei said her organization can take on some tenant eviction cases, but only so many per year due to limited resources. Even then, the client typically must be 200% below the poverty line to qualify.

Community Legal Aid took on about 1,494 housing law cases between Aug. 1, 2020 and July 31. About 580 of those were eviction cases. That number could increase significantly if the right to counsel program is implemented, Neuhauser said.

With a lawyer present, tenants will have access to a variety of defenses and legal remedies they otherwise wouldn’t know about, he said. For example, an eviction could be thrown out of court if it was filed improperly.

Or if a tenant was served an eviction notice, but has another housing option lined up, the lawyer could negotiate with the landlord to allow the tenant to stay until they can move into the new home, Malik said.

“There are also cases where they can negotiate a settlement where the person or family stays in the home,” Malik said. “Again, that is really helpful when you talk about accessibility and how important housing is to all these other issues: to healthcare, to workforce, to poverty, to crime. Housing instability really destabilizes a family.”

Because of limited funding, Legal Aid would only be able to initially represent between 360 and 420 people out of roughly 3,000-4,000 people evicted yearly during non-pandemic years.

Cleveland’s program also has limits. It’s only available to city residents who have children and earn at or below the federal poverty line: $21,720 per for a family of three. 

A majority of that program is grant funded, with only $300,000 out of $2.1 million coming from city government. This is a relative rarity when compared to other right to counsel programs in the U.S., which typically are majority-funded through city or state resources.

Legal Aid hasn’t yet worked out details about qualifications for eligibility, but they will likely adopt policies similar to Cleveland’s. 

When looking at some of the main issues facing Akron, such as a high infant mortality rate and a public school district with 10% of students labeled as housing insecure each year, Malik said it makes sense to focus on families and children. They will likely also target neighborhoods that have high eviction rates.

“The details are less important than seeing if the model works,” Malik said. “The main point is to see what works and see if this is something worth funding as a permanent thing.”

Housing is one of six major issues Mayor Horrigan plans to address with the American Rescue Plan Act funds, which will be dispersed in two rounds and must be used by the end of 2024. It is the most significant amount of money the city has received in its history. 

In his August 9 state of the city address, Horrigan shared his proposal to spend $15 million on housing rehabilitation and an additional $10 million to support infill construction for the neighborhoods hardest hit by the economic downturn.

It is still unclear if the right to counsel for tenants will be included in housing rehabilitation plans. The city and council plans to schedule two town halls for citizen input.

“I think it’s worth really making sure we spend (COVID-19 relief funds) in the most thoughtful and transformative ways and not in ways that are kind of just adding to things we’re already doing,” Malik said “Now is the time to try new things.”

With city support, Legal Aid is seeking additional ways to support legal assistance for tenants. The organization submitted a $2 million grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Eviction Protection program to mitigate evictions in Summit County. That proposal, however, does not include the right to counsel. 

“If (right to counsel) is not funded through this (relief money), maybe it’s next year,” Malik said. “Maybe we can find federal or state grants to start this process. I think it’s a worthy goal.”

Abbey Marshall and Conor Morris are Report for America corps members. Abbey covers economic development for The Devil Strip. Conor is a reporter for Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, a coalition of 18 newsrooms and community partners in the region. Reach them at abbey@thedevilstrip.com and conor@thedevilstrip.com.

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