With a possible COVID-19 eviction surge looming, Pa. must seal eviction records | Opinion

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By Mary Beth Schluckebier and Shane Taylor

For renters, an eviction filing can make it difficult to find safe and healthy housing for years to come—even if they never lose their case in court.

When Shane Taylor, a 37-year-old caseworker and single mom from Philadelphia, settled her eviction lawsuit with her former landlord in May 2019, she wanted nothing more than to put her old home in Tacony behind her. For a year, Taylor and her daughter lived with raw sewage, pest and rodent infestations, faulty plumbing and defective heat that forced them to use their oven to keep warm.

Her landlord claimed in court that Taylor owed $4,000 in back rent, when Taylor had been exercising her legal right to withhold rent in light of the uninhabitable conditions. After Taylor filed counterclaims in court, her landlord eventually agreed to drop her eviction charges, return her security deposit, and reimburse her for a month of rent because of the conditions she had been forced to live in.

But despite amicably settling her eviction case, Taylor still ended up on a renters’ blacklist that includes many of Philadelphia’s low-income tenants. That is because she had a public record of her eviction proceedings, available to any landlord considering renting to her.

Taylor found this blacklist standing between her and new, safe housing.

“Although I had income and no criminal background, my new landlord initially refused to rent to me due to the eviction on my record,” she said. “I felt horrible. As a single mother I felt like I had let my daughter down.”

Sadly, Taylor’s story is not unique.

Neither Pennsylvania nor Philadelphia expunge or seal records of eviction proceedings, regardless of the outcome in court or how much time has passed. This means that tenants can settle or even win their eviction cases and still end up with a public eviction record, showing that a previous landlord filed for eviction against them. Over a quarter of Pennsylvania eviction cases end with the case withdrawn, but eviction records for those tenants are still accessible indefinitely.

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Those eviction records can be enough to lock families out of the rental market altogether. In the Philadelphia tristate region, affordable units for low-income renters have become 50 percent more scarce over the past decade, with the region suffering from a deficit of over 100,000 affordable rentals. In this climate of housing scarcity, particularly in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many renters with eviction records like Ms. Taylor’s find themselves with nowhere to go.

“I had no chance of ever finding safe and adequate housing,” Taylor said. “I was angry that through no fault of my own, I felt like I would never be able to a rent a house anywhere. It was the worst feeling in the world.”

With support from The Public Interest Law Center, Taylor recently secured a new apartment after initially being turned away because of her alleged record.

But many renters are not so lucky. Black and brown renters are most frequently harmed by these persistent eviction records, with households headed by Black women with children most likely to face forced displacement. Local and state officials must act to solve this crisis.

Unless the courts and government officials take action, the current First Judicial District Order prohibiting lockouts in Philadelphia is set to expire at the end of the month, as is the Eviction Diversion Program.

According to a recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an estimated 19 million Americans are in danger of losing their homes when federal and local limits on evictions expire at the end of the year.

We must take action to stop this coming wave of evictions by extending tenant protections and expanding rental assistance.

And we must also make sure that any evictions brought about by the economic fallout of COVID-19 do not hold back renters for years to come: Pennsylvania courts should seal all eviction records during the pandemic, so that tenants are not further penalized for lack of income during this universally difficult time.

While sealing eviction records as we take on COVID-19 would be a good first step, it is not enough. COVID-19 did not create Philadelphia’s housing crisis—1 in 14 renters face an eviction filing in a typical year—and thousands of Pennsylvania renters such as Taylor are already hindered by eviction filing records.

That is why, as recommended in the new report published by Community Legal Services, the Legislature should pass legislation sealing eviction records.

City Council should pass local protections restricting the use of such eviction records as Taylor’s in rental decisions and banning the use of blanket ban policies. And the courts should expand options for tenants to reach agreements with their landlords and avoid eviction judgements and implement administrative rules limiting or sealing access to eviction filings.

Taking these critical steps would help ensure that Taylor’s story is among the last of its kind in Pennsylvania. In the midst of ever-increasing housing insecurity, it is the only fair and equitable path forward.

Taylor speaks for many renters when she says, “There needs to be a change in the system for people such as myself. Everyone deserves a clean safe environment for their families. Please review the policies & laws currently in place to avoid this happening to others.”

Shane Taylor fought her unjust eviction case with support from Mary Beth Schluckebier and The Public Interest Law Center.