Dayton to pilot Right to Counsel, as evictions continue to increase throughout region

A scale of justice shows property owners have more weight in court versus their tenants. The graphic says, "Rising Evictions & Right to Counsel."
The scale of justice still weighs in favor of property owners versus their tenants in court. Does Right to Counsel work and is it worth it?

Tenants, Landlords, Evictions and Right to Counsel

In most eviction hearings, only the landlord is represented. The tenant usually can’t afford an attorney or doesn’t have access to Legal Aid lawyers. But some communities are starting to realize that paying for attorneys to represent certain qualified renters can save money in the long run and give tenants a voice.  

State of local evictions 

Southwest Ohio is a hotbed for evictions. With rent averaging $1,100 a month in the Dayton area and $1,400 in Greater Cincinnati, an increasing number of renters are having problems affording the place in which they live. More people face eviction in Dayton than most other cities in Ohio. The Eviction Lab ranks Dayton 26th and Cincinnati 46th in the nation. Not helping matters, Cincinnati was the 13th most competitive rental market in the country in 2023. In addition, Butler County has the second highest county eviction rate in the state at just over 10-percent.  

One possible solution, to either keep people in their homes or prevent an eviction from going on their record, is to give eligible tenants representation by an attorney. Right to Counsel (RTC) is the right to be represented by an attorney from start to finish in an eviction case. 

Advocates for Basic Legal Equality or ABLE is preparing to start a RTC pilot program in Dayton. Senior Attorney Deborah Lavey says having an attorney is an advantage. “Typically, in 90-percent of the cases, when they have a lawyer, they either win their case or end up with a favorable outcome.” 

Lavey is getting funding together for the pilot program. “It wouldn’t cover all of Montgomery County but a segment of Montgomery County with the hope of growing that throughout the entire county,” she says. 

An average eviction hearing takes about 45 seconds 

To understand why representation is so important, court eviction hearings move fast and use a lot of legalese. Frequently they take less than a minute and many tenants don’t understand all that’s happening. Most often they are facing landlords who do have an attorney and if the property is under an LLC, it must be represented by an attorney according to state law. 

In Hamilton County, landlords file an average of 50 evictions every day for a total of 12,910 in 2023. Here are the demographics of eviction in Cincinnati, including the 10 buildings landlords file the most evictions. 

There are eight eviction courts in Montgomery County, filing about two dozen evictions a day. This is based on the 2023 total of 6,560 filings.  

Who is getting evicted? 

Nationwide, one in ten households is evicted monthly and one in seven children in big cities are being evicted. 

Blacks are disproportionately affected. African Americans are just 19-percent of renters but make up 51-percent of evictions. The Latinx population faces more evictions than Blacks. 

Brick by Brick’s Hernz Laguerre Jr. talked to one African American woman from Dayton who faced eviction and was able to navigate the court system thanks to legal help from ABLE.

Eviction Lab breaks the eviction data down by race (through 2016). The Eviction Research Network drills down on the City of Dayton through 2022. 

Director of the Eviction Research Network Tim Thomas uses computer modeling. Much of his in-depth research was centered in Seattle which is mostly white. But even there he saw the racial disparities. 

“Black and Latinx households that were there had an exorbitant amount of evictions. Black women in certain cases were facing eviction seven times higher and Latinx households were facing forty times more.” 

Sinclair Community College Sociologist Kathy Rowell collaborates with Thomas. She interviewed fifty local unhoused people and documented their struggles in her book Facing Eviction & Housing Insecurity: Listening to Community Voices. It was also the subject of a podcast and dramatic reading from Indiana Public Radio. Each one of the stories is deeply personal. One man lived in a gas station bathroom until it was torn down. And at a homeless shelter, a child was asked if he was homeless. He said, “I guess so, because the sign says homeless shelter.” 

The eviction process can be confusing. Here’s what you need to know 

At the Help Center in the Hamilton County Courthouse, Director Nick Zingarelli peels back the curtain on Hamilton County eviction court. Zingarelli and his staff offer free legal advice and take people facing eviction to Courtroom “B” Monday through Friday. That’s where there are two hearings a day and renters can know what to expect. The Help Center provides these documents and more: 

Tenant’s Guide to Eviction 

Landlord’s Guide to Filing an Eviction 

Tenants must bring documents and pictures to court. Magistrates don’t allow evidence on a phone. 

In Hamilton County, tenants have “Access to Counsel.” That’s different than RTC. Access to Counsel is having access to a Legal Aid lawyer if there is one available. And frequently there aren’t any because there is too great a need. Cincinnati City Council has passed “Access to Counsel, allocating more Legal Aid funding and rental assistance.” Councilmember Meeka Owens introduced the measure.  

Owens told Brick by Brick, “When you have an attorney with you to understand the legalese and everything that is happening in a court environment whereas a person does not, it can make a difference in the outcome of that proceeding.” 

Cincinnati Council is also working on same-day counsel and Pay to Stay. (Pay to Stay – if you have the money, you can stay – is held up in court) Dayton already has “Pay to Stay.” Also, part of a Cincinnati Tenants Bill of Rights, Owens would like to institute Source of Income protection, (again, something Dayton already has) banning landlords from not accepting government vouchers. 

Could a Right to Counsel program work in Cincinnati? 

The Director of the Help Center would like to see law students step up in a Right to Counsel program in Hamilton County, at least to represent tenants one day in court.  

Zingarelli says, “What it’s going to take is investment in somebody who is going to oversee that program and getting student buy-in. Students can represent people in court if they have a limited license and supervision of an attorney who can watch over them during those proceedings.” 

Councilmember Owens called Cleveland United Way to see how that city’s RTC works. 

Evidence Right to Counsel is working 

Cleveland 

Both the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland and the United Way of Greater Cleveland say RTC is effective. Here are the metrics from the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel or NCCRC. 

  • Evictions are decreasing (down 23-percent since before COVID). 
  • The number of tenants participating in Right to Counsel is increasing. Last year 5,372 Cleveland residents got help in 1,470 housing cases. 
  • The city is seeing between a 300-percent and 400-percent return on investment. The program costs $3.5 million and the economic benefit is between $11.8 million and $14 million. 

Eligible renters must meet 100-percent of the federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four, that’s about $31,000. And they must have at least one child at home. 

Philadelphia 

In Philadelphia Right to Counsel is just one part of the city’s eviction prevention program. Here are the different components: 

  • Rental assistance 
  • Mandatory mediation between landlord and tenants for court-ordered evictions. 
  • Courtroom navigator if a tenant just needs a lawyer for a day. 
  • Right to Counsel 
  • Renter’s Access Act – Created uniform screening criteria for applicants, and prevents blanket exclusion policies against people with eviction records. 

In Philadelphia eligibility for Right to Counsel is based on zip code and income. Residents making 200-percent of the federal poverty level qualify. 

What do landlords think? 

The Greater Dayton Real Estate Investor’s Association is still learning details of how RTC works. Understandably so, because the Dayton pilot program hasn’t started yet.  

The Real Estate Investor’s Association of Greater Cincinnati isn’t dismissing RTC outright as a solution. But it does have concerns. It told a Cincinnati City Council Committee, when Council was considering Access to Counsel, that RTC has, “shown to drastically increase the time to process and complete an eviction, leading to an increase in application standards and a default premium of rental increases.” 

Spokesperson Deborah Collins says early intervention through mediation and rent relief are much better solutions. President of the Greater Dayton Real Estate Investor’s Association Mike Frye would also rather the help come further upstream before it gets to an eviction. 

“Most housing providers do not want to have anything to do with evictions because evictions cost money and they want a resident who pays the rent and keeps the property clean,” Frye says. 

Collins points out that most landlords try to work something out with the tenant even after an eviction filing and says, “In Hamilton County, in 2018 and 2019, 82-percent of cases were dismissed before the court date.” 

Cleveland and Philadelphia say while there was some hesitation on the part of landlords at first to RTC, many realized rental assistance was available and having an attorney on both sides sped the process up. 

Limitations 

Cities with Right to Counsel recognize there are some limitations. They include: 

  • Cost (For Cleveland it’s $3.5 million, for Philadelphia it’s $5 million); Cleveland and Philadelphia started with a mix of public and private funding. 
  • Only certain people are eligible. In Cleveland tenants must have a child at home and meet 100-percent of the federal poverty guidelines. For Philadelphia it is only certain zip codes and 200-percent of the federal poverty guidelines. Both cities hope to expand RTC. (2024 federal poverty level: $15,016 (individual); $31,200 (family of four).  
  • It takes time for those eligible to find out about RTC and participate. 

Results 

Right to Counsel doesn’t necessarily keep people in their homes, but it usually lengthens the time before they have to move out and avoids an eviction on their record. Advocates say it also levels the playing field in court and speeds up the process. They also say it is decreasing the number of evictions in the handful of cities who have it. 

An increasing number of cities are considering RTC, based on this NCCRC clickable map

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Ann Thompson – Host, Producer

Over the last thirty years in Cincinnati, Ann Thompson has brought a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported and anchored for WVXU, WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV and Metro Networks and freelanced for NPR, CBS and ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and she has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. She is a former News Director and Operations Manager. Ann has reported from India, Japan, South Korea, Germany and Belgium as part of fellowships. Ann thinks of the Brick by Brick project as “journalism for good.” She serves as host and producer. Ann lives in Anderson Township with her husband Scott. They have two boys. Jake graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2022 and Kurt attends West Point.