“I feel like when you’re at Case, you’re in a bubble and don’t really see how bad the situation around you is.” This is how first-year student Judy Cusack described the relationship between Case Western Reserve University and the rest of Cleveland. This sentiment seems to be widely acknowledged by the campus, but rarely discussed.
While the average student at CWRU pays nearly $70,000 annually to attend, the median annual household income for Cleveland in 2017 was a meager $27,854. Outside of the “bubble” of University Circle, life in Cleveland is a far bleaker picture. With much of the population wrestling with issues of poverty, eviction and homelessness, city council representatives have declared the city to be facing a housing emergency and have announced plans to combat the crisis by providing tenants with representation in housing court.
The existence of CWRU has had serious consequences for the general population of Cleveland. The massive investments put into the community by the university and allied groups like University Circle Inc. (UCI), which allow the existence of the posh businesses dotting Euclid Avenue, as well as the plethora of museums and parks, contribute significantly to rising rents.
From 2018 to 2019, rent prices in the University Circle area increased nearly 50 percent. As other projects in Cleveland like the Opportunity Corridor have funneled investment into the area, similar trends in rising rents can be seen in other neighborhoods across the city. While CWRU and the surrounding area provide a good environment and education for many students, its financial success directly contributes to wider issues of poverty, eviction and homelessness in the wider community.
Because of the financial status of the average Cleveland resident, rising rents have had a particularly devastating impact. Recently, the U.S. Census Bureau determined Cleveland to be the city with the second highest poverty rates in the country, with an estimated 33.1 percent of all residents in Cleveland and 50.5 percent of residents under 18 living under the federal poverty line. Faced with a rising cost of living, many tenants simply do not have the income necessary to pay higher rents.
Together, rising rents and high poverty rates have created an eviction crisis in Cleveland. On average, there are nearly 9,000 eviction filings in the city annually, leaving the community with an eviction rate over two percent above the national average. Eighty percent of these eviction filings are due to an inability of the tenant to pay rent.
Evictions are a major contributor to housing instability, or a lack of a consistent guaranteed home. For some, having a past eviction makes finding a place to rent extremely difficult, as landlords prefer tenants without indicators that they may have trouble paying. For others, an eviction can lead to homelessness. Evictions also contribute to school instability, health issues and unemployment; all of which have devastatingly destabilizing effects on people’s lives and the Cleveland community as a whole.
However, evictions cannot be carried out against a tenant immediately, and there are opportunities for the tenant to fight the eviction. When a landlord decides to evict a tenant, they must file with the city housing court to hold a proceeding. Here, both tenant and landlord have the opportunity to provide evidence to support their case, but over half of tenants nationwide do not appear for their proceedings. In doing so, the tenant is accepting the eviction.
The low rate of attendance of tenants at their eviction proceedings does not indicate a lack of care. Tenants are often unaware of their rights and lack the resources to seek legal representation for the proceeding. Under two percent of tenants facing eviction have attorneys to represent them in court, while 75 percent of landlords in Cleveland are backed by legal counsel. The consequences of this are dramatic. When tenants do have legal representation in housing court, evictions are avoided in over 90 percent of cases.
The Cleveland City Council has recognized that the current rate of evictions poses a clear and present danger to public safety and is now following the path of many other major cities around the country. Recently, major metropolitan areas like New York City and San Francisco have passed laws to guarantee representation in housing court to mitigate the number of evictions and their detrimental effects on the community.
On Aug. 21, council representatives Kevin Kelley and Anthony Brancatelli proposed legislation that would guarantee legal representation in housing court to some of the most vulnerable groups in the city. The representatives stated in their proposal that women and children are disproportionately affected by eviction, as 76 percent of eviction cases in Cleveland are filed against women-led households, and 60 percent consist of households with children. The proposed bill would provide free legal representation to those who fall below the federal poverty line and who have children living in their households.
On Monday, Oct. 1, the city council voted to pass the legislation, and the bill was signed into law on Oct. 2. The City Council, along with the Housing Justice Alliance and the United Way of Greater Cleveland have been working for months on a plan for implementation, and members have stated that the current goal is to have the program solidly in place by June of 2020.
As residents of Cleveland, many of the council members have a close personal connection to this issue. During a meeting of the Finance Committee, representative Kevin Conwell stated, “When I was young, we constantly moved from one part of Glenville to other parts of Glenville and to Hough. It always kept me behind [in school]. I don’t want someone to have to grow up like I did, having to move from one area to another.”