By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia City Council has passed legislation for taxpayers to pay the legal bills of low-income tenants who are facing eviction, sending the bill to Mayor Jim Kenney.
The so-called right to counsel bill will guarantee tenants with a household income below 200% of the federal poverty line free legal representation when fighting evictions, lease terminations and similar issues in Landlord Tenant Court. An estimated 22,000 evictions are filed in Philadelphia annually, representing one in 14 renters, and Black women and their children are disproportionately affected.
At-large Councilwoman Helen Gym, a Democrat who introduced the bill in May, said her legislation will expand civil rights at the local level and create a more equitable process to private agreements between tenants and landlords.
“We’re trying to level the scales,” she said on the floor of the council chambers in City Hall after the passage of the bill.
Mike Dunn, a spokesman for the Kenney administration, said the mayor supported the legislation and is expected to sign it.
A landlord group saw the legislation as misdirected.
Victor Pinckney Sr., vice president of the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia that represents nearly 2,500 city landlords, did not support the bill, saying in a telephone interview that the legislation won’t reach the worst offenders: illegal landlords.
Pinckney said city dollars would be better spent on helping tenants pay their rent, noting that many cases in court involve tenants who don’t pay their rent, and educating tenants about their responsibilities and those of landlords.
“It is what it is at this point,” he said about the bill’s passage. “We’ll have to deal with it.”
At 200% of the poverty guidelines, the legislation would provide legal assistance for a family of two earning $33,820 and a family of four earning $51,500 annually, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website.
The program would run out of the city managing director’s office, which would be tasked with publicly posting an annual report on the number of tenants who received funding, the extent of the legal services provided, and metrics evaluating outcomes, among other things.
The legislation would build on the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project, which got up and running in January 2018 and works toward reducing the number of evictions and providing more resources to tenants.
Led by Community Legal Services, the program 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 project received $2.1 million this fiscal year, Gym said, which she expected to grow every year going forward with the help of private foundations and grants.
The Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project has provided legal assistance to 2,011 tenants facing eviction; 1,006 tenants have received legal advice and full representation; and 3,708 tenants have received assistance through the tenant helpline through May, according to the project’s website.
Barrett Marshall, attorney at Community Legal Services and director of the eviction project, said during the council session that Black women and their children are disproportionately affected by evictions.
During the past two years, Marshall said, the project has shown “we can prevent homelessness, stabilize communities, fight racism, and stem the rising tide of poverty in this city.”
The legislation has the potential to save the city millions.
A report last year found a $3.5 million investment to provide legal counsel to low-income tenants facing eviction could save the city an estimated $45 million annually.
The Philadelphia Bar Association’s report found that tenants had legal counsel in an average of 7% of cases over a 10-year period, compared with 80% for landlords. Unrepresented tenants were disruptively displaced in 78% of cases, while that rate plummeted to 5% for tenants with legal representation.
The biggest hurdle to broadening the program, Gym said, was educating tenants about their rights, particularly in those areas of the city experiencing high levels of evictions, and helping the legal community groups already participating in the program handle the increased workload.
“We really want to target it towards a real educational campaign about a new right that exists,” she said.
Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.