From the Field: Philadelphia Legislator Pushes for Right to Counsel in Eviction Cases

Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym introduced a bill (Bill No. 190386) on May 9 that would amend the “Landlord and Tenant” code to provide access to free legal representation to city’s lowest-income renters facing eviction in Landlord Tenant Court. Philadelphia would become the fourth city to pass legislation to provide residents such right to counsel, following New York City, Newark, and San Francisco. Community Legal Services advocates worked with Councilmember Gym on the bill.

Evictions are a growing problem in Philadelphia, especially because many landlords have little incentive to keep renting to low-income tenants when they can charge higher rents in gentrifying areas. Between 2010 and 2017, 22,000 evictions were filed in Philadelphia each year, effecting one out of every 14 renters. The Philadelphia Bar Association found that over a ten-year period, 7% of tenants had legal counsel compared to 80% of landlords. When tenants did not have representation, 78% ended up being disruptively displaced compared to 5% of renters who had legal counsel. Evictions have many negative consequences for families, including poor health, housing instability, and a reduction of housing choices.

Started in 2018 as a pilot to significantly expand access to legal services for tenants facing eviction, the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project (PEPP) is a collaboration of six organizations providing comprehensive services to tenants facing evictions.  PEPP includes Philadelphia legal aid organizations Community Legal Services, SeniorLAW Center, and Legal Clinic for the Disabled; TURN, a tenant counseling and education agency; Clarifi, a financial counseling agency; and VIP, a legal services agency that coordinates pro bono representation by volunteer attorneys.

PEPP has been successful: tenants are more likely to attend their hearings and have better case outcomes when meeting with a PEPP advocate. PEPP has shown that both limited assistance and full representation are important and that choosing one over the other depends on the tenant’s circumstances. Tenants who visited the Help Center and did not receive full representation were still more likely to show up to court and win their cases than tenants that did not meet with a PEPP advocate. For this reason, the right-to-counsel program should use a range of legal assistance, from advice to full representation.  PEPP hopes to expand its pilot into a full right to counsel under Councilmember Gym’s bill.

Community Legal Services worked closely with Councilmember Gym’s office to draft the right-to-counsel legislation, after gaining important feedback from New York City Right to Counsel colleagues. Ms. Gym’s bill would require that any renter in Philadelphia whose annual gross income is below 200% of the federal poverty guideline and who is undergoing eviction proceedings would receive free legal services from “designated organizations.” Designated organizations are nonprofits or for-profit legal organizations that provide pro bono legal representation and have the capacity to offer free counsel to low-income renters. All renters covered under the bill would have the right to full legal representation as soon as the eviction is filed and no later than their first scheduled appearance in court.

The legislation also mandates that all legal representation provided to renters undergoing evictions requires funding through state appropriations. If the need for legal representation exceeds the funding available, legal services funding would be prioritized by the income levels of those served. Councilmember Gym requested $1.5 million in annual appropriations to fund renters’ right to counsel, building on her past efforts to provide resources for renter assistance. The Philadelphia Bar Association estimates it would cost $3.5 million annually to provide legal aid for all low-income tenants in eviction cases. Councilmember Gym hopes community organizations that recognize the connections between health and housing will help fill in the funding gap.

Rasheedah Phillips, former managing attorney of the housing unit at Community Legal Services, gave testimony at a Philadelphia City Council budget hearing on May 8 to support the allocation of $1.5 million for robust legal representation for low-income tenants facing eviction. She stated that investing in legal services and a right to counsel for tenants is cost-effective and one of the best measures to prevent evictions, housing instability, and homelessness. Investing in legal representation saves the city money: for every $1 invested into legal representation to prevent evictions saves nearly $13 in costs in city services.

For more information about the Philadelphia Right to Counsel legislation, contact Barrett Marshall, Esq., director of the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project at: [email protected] or Rachel Garland, managing attorney of the housing unit at Community Legal Services by email at: [email protected] or (215) 981-3774.