A Dayton woman’s housing journey points to the importance of fairness in the courtroom 

Alice Wood and her four children standing outside of their home.

THE DIFFERENCE AN ATTORNEY MAKES 

Alice Wood is a single mother of four who works at Procter and Gamble in line production. During her free time, she loves taking her children to the park to feed the ducks. “Trying to keep some type of routine so that there is some type of normal, cause our housing hasn’t been normal.” said Wood.  

Wood was facing an extensive list of maintenance issues at her duplex that she was renting for herself and her four children. She faced plumbing issues, there were softball-sized holes in her bathroom that led to the outside which created chilling temperatures in the winter and allowed bees to enter in the summer. On top of that she dealt with a front door without a doorknob, a rodent infestation, railing issues, and the list goes on. The landlord didn’t address the poor conditions of her duplex and they were getting worse.  

To remedy this issue, she filed her rent into escrow. Rent escrow is a legal process that allows a tenant to make rent payments to the court, rather than the landlord, until the property owner makes the necessary repairs. In general, the repairs must involve a problem that has made the property unsafe or uninhabitable.  

The landlord counteracted and filed an eviction against Wood. Although Wood initially represented herself in court, she eventually connected with ABLE attorney Sarah Weber through the grassroots group fighting for housing rights, the Dayton Tenant’s Union. ABLE, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc. is a nonprofit law firm that helps individuals who can’t afford an attorney.  

Weber was able to help Wood get the eviction dismissed. Weber said, “My impression of Alice is that she didn’t really need an attorney. She knew what she was doing and so, I always think of her as my partner. Alice is very good at representing herself.”  

Wood said although the evidence was in her favor, she doesn’t believe that she would’ve won the case without Weber as her attorney. When asked why, Wood stated, “I feel like they probably would have come up with another excuse or another reason.” 

Weber provided a respectable presence as an attorney and helped Wood navigate the details of eviction proceedings.  

HISTORY RIGHT TO COUNSEL 

We don’t have a federal law that allows for the right to counsel for tenants facing eviction but there is a precedent for the right to counsel. Since the 1963 case of Gideon v Wainwright, the Supreme Court issued that anyone charged with serious crimes has a right to counsel. However, this law only applied to criminal cases and not civil cases. Therefore, civil cases like eviction hearings aren’t included. In the United States, if you face eviction, your right to counsel is determined by where you live. Only eighteen jurisdictions, including three states and fifteen cities, have passed ordinances or bills that create a right to counsel for tenants facing eviction according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. 

According to attorneys at ABLE, without right to counsel, the courtroom is currently imbalanced. Most landlords are represented at eviction hearings where only a small number of tenants are represented. Research shows that tenants facing eviction who have lawyers are more likely to avoid displacement.   

Not only would the favorable outcome benefit the tenant, but it would allow for checks and balances in the courtroom.  

HOLDING COURTS ACCOUNTABLE 

Eviction rates are rising around the country. According to the Eviction Lab. Ohio ranks as the 26th highest eviction rate state in the country. Speaking about the rate of evictions in Dayton, Weber said eviction occurs often because a tenant isn’t informed about how to navigate the courtroom. 

“Evidence is always being presented by a witness or some sort of documentation. That’s what the evidence is. Evidence isn’t what’s coming out of my mouth. But there are plenty of courts that just allow, the attorney to come in without their client and provide the evidence that way and then evict these tenants.” 

A lawyer ensures that their client’s constitutional rights are not violated, and they help them navigate the legal system. They can also help their client avoid making statements that could be used against them in court. An average individual doesn’t have the same knowledge as a full-fledged lawyer.  

Both Weber and senior attorney Debra Lavey from ABLE share that Right to Counsel could even speed up the court hearings by allowing both parties to have their lawyers communicate. Debra stated that both lawyers could create a resolution before the hearing begins, meaning it never even has to reach the courtroom, saving time and money.  

SOLUTIONS: PILOT PROGRAM AND BEYOND  

Dayton will be premiering a pilot program for Right to Counsel this year. Debra Lavey is gathering the funding for the 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. You can read more about it in Ann Thompson’s Brick by Brick article here.

Even if right to counsel gets approved, we need to address the stain of having an eviction on your record. Ohio Senate Bill 245 which, in part, would allow for the sealing of eviction records is still held up in committee and has yet to be passed by the full Senate.  

Once a tenant has been evicted, they have what assistant law professor from University of the District of Columbia Yvette N.A. Pappoe calls a “Scarlet Letter E.”  

“Landlords’ overreliance on these incomplete and often erroneous tenant screening reports, generated by tenant screening companies for profit, drapes tenants who have had evictions filed against them with a “Scarlet Letter E”: a badge of shame and stigma that effectively deems the tenant unworthy of housing.” said Pappoe.  

In Wood’s case, although the eviction filings were dismissed, she and her attorney are still working to remove the eviction notice from her file.  

The Dayton Tenant Union is in the beginning stages of a program to help tenants in similar situations as Alice pair together with upstanding landlords. The working title of this program is called, “Good Tenants, Good Landlords.” The purpose of this program is to help tenants pair with landlords who observe tenant’s rights and to help landlords pair with responsible tenants.  


Hernz Laguerre Jr. – Multi-Media Journalist

Hernz is a Haitian American who was born and raised in Spring Valley, NY. He attended school at S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, where he learned to hone his skills as a storyteller. After graduating with his Bachelors in Broadcast and Digital Journalism and his Masters in Television Radio and Film, he went on to a career in media as a producer, reporter and freelance videographer for companies like ESPN and Court TV. He eventually moved to Detroit, where he worked as a Multimedia Journalist for The Detroit News and then the NPR affiliate, WDET, before starting his work with the Brick by Brick team at CET and ThinkTV. Hernz aims to produce stories that tell the bigger picture while doing his due diligence to educate and inform the public about the solutions-focused work being done in the Cincinnati and Dayton areas.