The city is moving closer to paying the legal bills for low-income tenants facing eviction, much to the displeasure of landlords.
A bill proposed in City Council would provide tenants with income below 200% of the poverty line with free legal assistance when fighting evictions, lease terminations and similar issues in Landlord Tenant Court.
At-large Councilwoman Helen Gym, the main sponsor of the bill, said housing was a human right and evictions disproportionately affect communities of color. She expected the program to cost $1.5 million.
“Our job is to stabilize the city and to keep both landlords and tenants in the most stable arrangement possible,” said Gym during a news conference inside the Council Chambers at City Hall on Thursday with advocates and other council members.
The proposed legislation has the support of Council President Darrell Clarke, along with Council members Cherelle Parker, Curtis Jones, Bill Greenlee, Bobby Henon and Kenyatta Johnson.
Clarke said the legislation would combat landlords seeking to boot out tenants to charge higher rents in gentrifying neighborhoods.
“We cannot allow people to get moved out of a neighborhood because all of a sudden gentrification is taking place,” Clarke said.
The proposal was seen as anti-landlord by an industry group.
Victor Pinckney Sr., vice president of Homeowners Association of Philadelphia that represents nearly 2,500 landlords, said the proposed legislation could cause landlords to shun low-income tenants and potentially spur landlords to upgrade their units so they can raise rents.
“They’re putting one in lawyers’ pockets,” Pinckney said.
The city would guarantee low-income tenants have the right to a lawyer in Landlord Tenant Court as part of the proposal. New York City and San Francisco have already passed similar legislation.
The proposal would build on the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project, which aims to reduce the number of evictions and provide more resources to tenants.
Launched in 2017 and led by Community Legal Services, the project offers a host of services, including a lawyer-for-a-day, live telephone advice hotline, financial counseling and an informational website at phillytenant.org. The city provided $850,000 for the project in the current fiscal year.
As part of the proposal, a single tenant earning up to $24,980 a year would be eligible for the free legal counsel, as well as a family of four earning up to $51,500, according to current federal poverty guidelines.
The city could save an estimated $45 million a year in costs related to the eviction process by investing $3.5 million to provide legal counsel to low-income tenants facing evictions, according to a 2018 report from the Philadelphia Bar Association.
The study found that tenants had legal counsel in an average of 7% of cases over a 10-year period, compared to 80% for landlords. Unrepresented tenants were disruptively displaced in 78% of cases, while that rate plummeted to 5% for tenants with legal representation, according to the study.
Each year, 22,000 evictions are filed in Philadelphia, affecting one in 14 renters.
Rochelle Fedullo, chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar association, said access to legal counsel is among the most effective measures to prevent the financial burdens and human costs to Philadelphia that stem from evictions and homelessness.
“It is sound economic policy; it is good public policy; it is the good and moral thing to do,” she said at the news conference.
The proposed legislation is a companion bill to another proposal that Clarke introduced this year that establishes a low-income tenant legal defense fund.
Pinckney, the vice president of the city’s homeowners association, said he was open to compromise.
He suggested that City Council provide financial education programs for tenants and offer more financial assistance, because many evictions involve non-payment of rent.
Asked whether the association would fight the bill, Pinckney said, “I wouldn’t say kill the bill, but maybe put it in the right direction.”
Gerrell Sampson, 31, is a resident and renter who received free legal assistance.
Sampson, a mother of six with another on the way, said her experience at Tenant Landlord Court was one of fear, anxiety and intimidation, where judgments against tenants hurt their chances at acquiring future housing and tenants face high legal fees if they lose.
But having legal assistance levels the playing field between tenants and landlords, she said.
“How do you fight a fight if you don’t know your rights?” she asked. “How do you fight something when you don’t know what you’re entitled to? What their job is? What your job is? Whether you’re right or wrong?”