CLEVELAND, Ohio — For those living on the edge of poverty, finding the time and money to force landlords to fix broken furnaces and water tanks or to exterminate bed bugs is a battle few can afford, if they even know where to begin.
For 40 years, the Cleveland Tenants Organization was one of their few allies, guiding them on how to legally withhold rent from bad landlords and advising them of their rights during the eviction process.
But the CTO closed its doors this week, a victim of poverty itself. Its modest contributions from public and private sources and from government contracts were drying up. So, the nonprofit had to suspend its work.
In recent years, more than 3,000 Clevelanders turned to the organization annually. More than 1,000 others from the suburbs also reached out each year.
For cleveland.com’s A Greater Cleveland series on poverty, my colleagues and I have been following several families who are struggling to find decent and stable housing. If their stories have taught me one thing, it’s this: Stable housing is among the most significant barriers to climbing out of poverty.
The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland – a nonprofit law firm for the poor –understands this. That’s why it quickly decided to take over the CTO’s hotline to provide education and guidance about tenant rights.
“The lack of stable housing perpetuates poverty and the instability hurts the education of kids and parents’ ability to work,” Legal Aid’s Executive Director Colleen Cotter said in an interview this week.
Legal Aid is so committed to addressing this reality that it hired the CTO employee who handled hotline calls — even though Legal Aid currently has no money in its budget for the position.
“It was a leap of faith that we can raise the money,” Cotter said. “We are anticipating 3,000 calls a year. That’s not insignificant. We are figuring this out. It’s a good service to the community.”
The Legal Aid has long represented the poor and tenants facing eviction. But in a city that sees more than 10,000 court evictions a year, Legal Aid can only take on a tiny fraction of those cases, typically just those involving publicly subsidized housing.
Here’s an example of its work.
Last year, it stepped in on behalf of a woman who had a heated argument with her landlord, who refused to exterminate bed bugs and fix the sagging floor in her daughter’s bedroom.
After the woman complained about the landlord to the local housing authority, which subsidized her rent, the landlord started eviction proceedings. The landlord also sued to recover $1,000 for what he claimed were damages she caused to the apartment.
Facing homelessness, the woman attended a Legal Aid clinic at the Cleveland Public Library, where a volunteer attorney agreed to take her case. Reacting to the legal fight, the landlord then sought to recover $25,000 in damages, claiming he suffered emotional trauma from his argument with the woman over the repairs.
Legal Aid successfully defended the woman. Cleveland Housing Court dismissed the landlord’s suit and the woman received her security deposit, which she put toward a new apartment.
This year, Legal Aid Attorney Hazel Remesch is trying to establish an eviction clinic that would operate out of the Cleveland Housing Court. The clinic would provide volunteer attorneys to handle procedural and merit-based defenses for tenants facing eviction. (The work is being paid for by a fellowship grant Remesch received from the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland.)
“Ninety-nine percent of tenants are unrepresented,” Cotter said. “Our goal is keeping them in housing when they have a right to stay.”
That, of course, was also one goal of the CTO.
“It’s a sad commentary that we have this huge issue in our community and we are scrambling to have resources to meet even a small part of the need,” Cotter said.