Commentary

All Pennsylvanians win when tenants have legal representation | Opinion

Universal access to counsel is not a one-size fits all solution nor a panacea for the housing crisis.

By Rasheedah Phillips and Bob Damewood 

In the wake of COVID-19’s economic devastation, and with the eviction moratorium phasing out across Pennsylvania, many Pennsylvanians are wondering if they will be able to keep a roof over their heads after losing incomes during the pandemic, even among those lucky enough to be back to work at full pre-pandemic pay.

One essential tool for preventing eviction is legal representation, which preserves the rights of tenants and helps landlords and tenants come to successful resolutions that avoid displacement and prevent homelessness. It has been shown time and time again that legal aid is key to the health of our economy. It only makes sense for Pennsylvania to use a portion of its federal Fiscal Recovery Funds to pilot a universal access to counsel program.

Legal aid is sorely needed to prevent the incoming tidal wave of evictions. Here is but one example: A young mother in Lawrence County, like hundreds of thousands of others throughout Pennsylvania, fell behind on her rent in 2020.  After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, her partner was unable to find stable employment – only odd jobs that provided barely enough to buy food for their children and diapers for their newborn baby.  Her federal stimulus check took months to arrive.  Her landlord knew that he couldn’t evict her and her family for nonpayment of rent because of the eviction moratorium, so he attempted to evict them for alleged lease violations – a past due water bill (although it was in her name, not the landlord’s) and temporarily denying the landlord access to the house to make a non-emergency repair, so she could protect her immunocompromised newborn from exposure to anyone outside the family.

Upon receiving the eviction complaint, she contacted Neighborhood Legal Services (NLS).  At the eviction hearing, the NLS attorney argued that the alleged lease violations were not serious enough to justify evicting the family, and that the real reason for the eviction was nonpayment of rent, which was barred by a moratorium. Because the young mother had excellent free legal representation on her side, the Judge ruled in her favor. After staving off the eviction, the NLS attorney helped her apply for rental assistance so she could catch up on her rent, ultimately benefiting both her and her landlord.  Legal aid made it possible for her and her family to keep their home and remain in it still today.

Before the pandemic, more than 84,000 households in Pennsylvania faced eviction every year.  The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reports that tenants are far more housing insecure now than they were before the pandemic.

Eviction does not affect everyone equally.  It disproportionally affects Black tenants and people with disabilities.  Eviction overwhelmingly impacts single mothers with children for many reasons.  Women are paid less than men.  Single mothers must bear the cost of childcare and healthcare, along with the costs of housing children.  Sometimes landlords evict survivors of domestic violence for the violent conduct of their abusers.   While researching his Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond found that the mere presence of children in the household increases a tenant’s risk of eviction.

Eviction forces families to abandon their daily routines of home life.  It causes people to lose their jobs, or at the very least, causes a disruption to income as tenants must take off from work to move.  Eviction causes homelessness or precarious housing arrangements that put family members at risk of trauma or abuse, leading to behavioral health problems that cut across generations.  It forces survivors of domestic violence to return to their abusers because they have nowhere else to go.  It causes children to fall behind in school if they are forced to change schools mid-year or if they do not have a stable place to sleep.  It causes people who are living with mental illness or substance abuse to relapse because they do not have a stable home base from which to attend appointments.  It increases the risk of suicide.

The consequences of eviction go far beyond temporary displacement and loss of shelter. Judgments based on evictions lead to loss of housing benefits, such as housing vouchers, and compromise the ability to find housing, often for the rest of one’s life, leading to dangerous cycles of poverty and instability. Beyond the damage to individuals and families who are thrust into poverty and homelessness, evictions and forced displacement unravel the fabric of a community, helping to ensure that neighbors remain strangers and that their collective capacity to promote civil engagement remains untapped.

Access to legal representation can prevent evictions from happening. It can be the difference between becoming homeless or having to double up with family members and having a stable place to live. Even if a tenant cannot stay in their home, legal representation can ensure that tenants have the time to locate suitable housing and move on without an eviction record, so they can find future housing. Legal representation also leads to agreements between landlords and tenants, so all sides benefit.

Stout Risius Ross, LLC (Stout), a nationally recognized research firm, recently completed a study of the impact of expanding universal access to counsel for low-income tenants in eviction proceedings in Pennsylvania.  While legal aid programs already provide legal representation to thousands of low-income households facing eviction each year, many more do not have access to counsel. Stout estimates that universal access to counsel in Pennsylvania would provide legal support for 17,200 additional tenant families faced with losing their homes each year.

The Stout Report analyses of the benefits and costs of ensuring that all eligible tenants facing eviction have access to counsel, advice, and legal representation throughout the eviction process.  According to the report, expanding universal access to eviction counsel could result in more than 4,200 fewer eviction filings in Pennsylvania each year and help to benefit and stabilize our communities. Though the study does not measure the precise economic benefit derived from universal access to eviction counsel, it estimates that for every $1 invested in universal access to eviction counsel in Pennsylvania, the state would save an estimated $3 – $6 on costs related to related to emergency shelter, re-housing, emergency healthcare, foster care and social services.

With the receipt of federal Fiscal Recovery Funds, Pennsylvania has a unique opportunity to “test drive” universal access to eviction counsel. Helping families who were hardest hit by the pandemic remain stably housed, while at the same time generating cost savings to the state budget, would be an ideal use of federal recovery funds.  A two-year pilot program would enable the state to get a handle on the precise benefits and cost savings produced by universal access to eviction counsel.

In the age of COVID-19, it remains critical that people have access to home as a source of stability so that they may have pathways back to employment and other opportunities that allow us collectively to begin the process of healing and rebuilding our communities.

Universal access to counsel is not a one-size fits all solution nor a panacea for the housing crisis. It is, however, one crucial and proven-to be effective tool towards the goal of reducing housing instability and homelessness, one that recognizes that housing is one of the most important stabilizing factors, as a gateway to stable employment, educational, and other opportunities, and a tool that promotes racial, gender, and disability equity.

Access to justice is a moral imperative – one’s ability to access the justice system and defend their shelter, their home, cannot be based on who can afford a lawyer.

Rasheedah Phillips currently serves as the Managing Attorney of Housing Policy at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which provides legal advice, representation, and systemic advocacy on behalf of low-income Philadelphians.Bob Damewood is a staff attorney in the Pittsburgh office of Regional Housing Legal Services, which works to create housing and economic opportunity in under-served communities in Pennsylvania and to effect systemic change for the benefit of lower-income households. 

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