January 20, 2017; Columbus Dispatch

The Columbus Dispatch reports on a new initiative to expand representation for defendants in eviction court. The Tenant Advocacy Project is sponsored by the Legal Aid Society of Columbus (LASC), with support from the Columbus Foundation, the Ohio State Bar Foundation, and PNC Bank. The plan is to set up a legal clinic in the Franklin County Municipal Court. Tenants arriving for hearings can get same-day service from LASC staff or volunteer (pro bono) attorneys. Services could include legal advice, self—help forms, or actual representation.

“Our first goal will be to see if we can help the landlord and the tenant resolve the case without the tenants being forced out,” says LASC managing attorney Benjamin Horne.

Shortly after the program is established, LASC plans to recruit and train volunteer “resource specialists” who can help families identify emergency assistance to cover unpaid rent. LASC staff are already reaching out to The Ohio State University to recruit law and social work student interns to complement the legal staff and volunteers.

While not specifically modeled on the court navigators programs profiled in a recent NPQ article, the Tenant Advocacy Program has many of the same elements, including a mix of professional legal staff and trained non-legal staff to provide same-day service to tenant defendants.

Executive Director Thomas Weeks admits to having had the idea of expanding eviction representation even before reading Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. The big impact of the book for him was the way in which Desmond focused on the rental practices of private sector landlords. Over the years, legal services programs have concentrated on the rights of federally assisted tenants. However, only about a third of eligible households actually receive federal housing assistance and the due process protections that go with a federal subsidy.

How will Columbus Legal Aid measure success? According to Horne, the primary goal is to keep families from falling into homelessness. Eviction, he notes, is often a first step in a downward spiral leading to a shelter. Shelters, paid for by local government and funders, are more costly than keeping a family in place. While non-payment cases are typically the most frequent cases heard in eviction courts around the country, many cases bring features that challenge the idea that non-payment equals eviction. Sometimes, negotiating a deal to keep families housed is the best approach, but the Tenant Advocacy Program is ready to help tenants bring legal challenges to evictions based on faulty legal notices, disputed damage claims, improper plaintiff representation, or retaliation. Knowledgeable, highly motivated tenants will be offered pro se (self representation) forms and advice. Direct representation will be offered when defendants have more complex issues or lack the skills to present their cases themselves.

Programs like the Tenant Advocacy Program walk a tightrope between increasing opportunities for defendants to tell their stories and the need to keep the court system running efficiently. Franklin County Municipal Court has been welcoming, according to Attorney Horne, but the program managers are conscious of the need to not bog down the system. Enhancing efficiency by bringing relevant facts to the judges in a familiar format was a key finding cited in the American Bar Foundation’s study of court navigator programs in New York City.

These sorts of programs also have the potential to incite systemic reform in the “eviction industry.” For years, members of the private Bar have shunned eviction defense, as defendants are often unable to afford representation and attorney fees, where available, are often too small to cover an attorney’s costs. By bringing private attorneys into eviction court, the Tenant Advocacy Project may help members of the private Bar understand that eviction defense might support a lucrative practice. Building a track record of successful fee claims could also caution plaintiffs’ attorneys against bringing flimsy cases against tenants. Those tenants might just show up on hearing day with a professional attorney beside them. Challenging cases that are brought in retaliation for a tenant exercising her right to call a city inspector or put rent into escrow could result in a double loss for a landlord: no eviction and paying the defendant’s attorney.

All that said, the jury is out when it comes to successful “in court, same-day” clinics for eviction defendants. If LASC can show that the program is cost effective in terms of saving public agencies from the costs associated with rehousing displaced families while not overburdening court resources, the Tenant Advocacy Program in Columbus Ohio could inspire other advocates to take up the cause of representation in eviction court.—Spencer Wells