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Tenants without an attorney in local eviction court are 84% more likely to lose housing, study finds


A report from the Cincinnati Tenants' Union says renters in Hamilton County eviction court are far less likely to get an eviction order if they're represented by an attorney. But only 7% of tenants have that representation, compared to 93% of landlords.

Secretary Kevin Hengehold says he analyzed about 19,000 cases between March 2021 and January 2023.

"Tenants who had lawyers in eviction court had an 84% lower risk of receiving an eviction order than tenants who didn't have lawyers," Hengehold said.

Most renters with an attorney are represented for free by the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati, which was not involved in the study. Managing Attorney Nick DiNardo says the average eviction hearing lasts about 45 seconds.

"So if you don't have an attorney there who knows the law and knows how the process works, a lot of tenants just — it happens too fast. They don't even know what hit them," he said.

DiNardo says the best way to prevent evictions is to combine rental assistance with legal representation.

RELATED: New initiative aims to prevent non-payment evictions in Cincinnati public housing

"Landlords have every right to collect the rent and we want to make sure that landlords are made whole as part of this process," he said. "If you have rental assistance available, but don't have an attorney to help you with the process, you'll oftentimes get evicted like people are right now, even though they have rental assistance available."

That's despite a Cincinnati ordinance that's supposed to protect tenants from evictions if they can pay all past-due rent and legal fees, or if they can show they're approved for rental assistance to cover all the costs. As WVXU reported last year, magistrates immediately refused to enforce the ordinance. DiNardo says that's still happening in most cases.

"The magistrates are still very adverse to ruling on pay to stay and we don't understand why," DiNardo said. "We're trying to get a case up into the court of appeals, but we haven't had one go that far yet."

The Cincinnati Tenant's Union is asking the city to establish a right to counsel program, like the one Cleveland put in place a couple years ago.

"I really want to see us hit that tipping point where landlords who have been filing kind of flimsy evictions know that they can't expect to just steamroll a tenant," Hengehold said.

The study cites research on right to counsel programs in several cities, saying keeping families in homes saves public money by reducing the need for social services.

RELATED: Cincinnati renters have eviction protection under a new law. But the county court won't enforce it

Cincinnati City Council Member Meeka Owens says the next city budget will include about a million dollars for legal assistance, but the program will also include rent assistance and other services.

"If transportation is a barrier to even showing up for your proceeding, then we are not addressing all of the things that we can," Owens said. "And so it's important to have this opportunity where other human services organizations, social service organizations can get involved as well."

The city manager and mayor are expected to release their draft of the budget next week. Council must pass a final version by the end of June.

Read the full study below. Note: Hengehold conducted the analysis for the Cincinnati Tenants' Union. Click here to learn more about his education and credentials.

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.