Cleveland's right-to-counsel is funded in the 2022 budget far below expected cost
The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland and United Way of Greater Cleveland are looking for new sources of funding beyond this year to keep Cleveland’s right-to-counsel program running.
City council created a right to legal representation in 2020 for families facing eviction.
Any Cleveland renter facing eviction whose income is below the poverty line and has a child in the house is guaranteed a lawyer to fight their eviction.
The program cost Legal Aid $2.7 million to run in 2021, and costs are expected to increase in 2022 as financial support and protections against eviction created during the pandemic expire.
The city’s 2022 budget allocates $500,000 for the program, an increase from the city’s 2021 contribution of $300,000.
Melanie Shakarian with Legal Aid said there’s enough funding from philanthropic sources and the city to keep the program running this year.
“Looking beyond 2022, when philanthropic funds are not the primary source of funding for this program, we continue to need city support,” Shakarian told Ideastream Public Media.
At a January 31 city council meeting, United Way CEO Augie Napoli stressed the need for city support, saying philanthropic sources can’t be relied on every year.
“We want to stay focused on what the city can do through city council and through the budget,” Napoli said.
During the January meeting, a consultant told council that 93 percent of families facing eviction who qualified under the rules of right-to-counsel in 2021 were able to avoid eviction.
“Approximately 60 percent of eligible households in Cleveland who are facing eviction were represented in 2021. Sixty percent,” said Neil Steinkamp from the New York-based consulting firm Stout. “Prior to right-to-counsel, that was around 1 or 2 percent.”
When budget hearings in city council started in February, finding additional funding for the program proved difficult.
Council recently submitted its revisions to Mayor Justin Bibb’s 2022 budget. Among the changes is an increase in right-to-counsel funding by $200,000 from the mayor's original proposal, but still far below the cost of the program.
The budget used $62 million in reserves, primarily for additional staff positions throughout city government. The structural imbalance caused “grave concerns” for Council President Blaine Griffin, who still voted it out of finance committee.
There has to be legal representation for Cleveland families meeting the program's requirements, Julie Wisneski, director of housing stability at United Way of Greater Cleveland told Ideastream, so one way or another, the program will have to keep going.
“With the city’s fantastic investment and our work attempting to fundraise and expand the program eventually, if possible, we’re committed to it,” Wisneski said.
Wisneski said it’s possible money from the American Rescue Plan Act could go toward eviction services when more becomes available this year.