Feb 1, 2022 - News

Some Philly tenants facing eviction now guaranteed free legal help

Illustration of three rows of identical houses on a blue background, with one of the houses replaced with a lock.
Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Low-income tenants in certain Philadelphia neighborhoods are now guaranteed legal representation in eviction courts.

What's happening: The city's Right to Counsel pilot program kicks off Tuesday in ZIP codes 19121 and 19139, officials said during a virtual news conference Monday.

  • The targeted areas include the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood and parts of West Philadelphia.

Why it matters: Only 10% of tenants in the city have representation in eviction court, compared to 75% of landlords.

  • Before the pandemic, Philadelphia ranked fourth among the largest U.S. cities for most evictions, averaging about 20,000 per year.

Between the lines: Evictions in Philadelphia disproportionately impact Black women and their families.

  • Roughly 56% of eviction filings in the city between 2015 and 2020 were against renters in Philly's majority Black neighborhoods, according to a report.

Catch up fast: The Philadelphia City Council passed the program in 2019, and it was scheduled to take effect last year, but the city failed to fund it.

  • Philly later dedicated $3.4 million to tenant representation programs, including Right to Counsel. The pilot is expected to cost $650,000 through June 30.

How it works: Eligibility is based on income, which is up to $27,180 for an individual and up to $55,500 for a four-person household.

  • Immigration status is not a criteria for eligibility.
  • The city will set up phone banks to call tenants at risk of an eviction in those areas.

What they're saying: Evictions are a racial justice issue, and the program marks a "major step in leveling the playing field" for city tenants, Kadeem Morris, an attorney with Community Legal Services who worked on the program, said Monday.

  • "Evictions continue the cycle of poverty by increasing homelessness, creating family instability, displacement and job loss," Morris added.

Councilperson Helen Gym, who spearheaded the legislation for Right to Counsel, told Axios that it's the "most logical time" to implement the program because emergency COVID-19 protections have expired.

Meanwhile, Paul Cohen, a lawyer for landlord advocacy group HAPCO, expressed support for the concept, but said he's concerned about an increase in requests for continuances, which could create more delays in cases.

Of note: For tenants who cannot take part in the pilot, Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project offers workshops and pro-bono work for income-eligible clients.

What's next: The city hopes to expand the program to four additional ZIP codes in the next fiscal year starting July 1, but it's dependent on funding, said Eva Gladstein, Philly's deputy managing director for Health and Human Services.

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