Despite being the sixth-largest city in the U.S., Philadelphia ranks fourth in total evictions, with over 20,000 filed each year. Evictions are complicated legal proceedings, which require legal help, but only 11% of tenants facing eviction have a lawyer, in contrast with 80% of landlords. Tenants who have legal help are 95% more likely to avoid homelessness. However, for those without a lawyer, the outcome is often devastating. Our eviction rate is an urgent citywide crisis.
Evictions destabilize the lives of entire families and have consequences that ripple through whole communities. They are a root cause of homelessness and poverty and can result in job loss and mental and physical health issues. Evictions can result in children being torn from their families and placed into foster care.
Those most affected by evictions in Philadelphia are most likely to be our city’s most vulnerable populations: black women with children, older people and those raising grandchildren, veterans, people with disabilities, and low-income households.
A first step to address the eviction crisis in Philadelphia was taken in 2017, with the establishment of the pilot Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project (PEPP). Since its start two years ago, PEPP has provided legal assistance to more than 2,000 renters facing eviction, helped more than 3,700 renters through its tenant hotline, and held over 530 trainings and community workshops. PEPP has already helped decrease the number of eviction filings in Philadelphia by 10%. Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council have provided $2 million in funding to PEPP for fiscal year 2020. However, we need to invest in a permanent solution by creating a right to counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction.
In 2018, the Philadelphia Bar Association released a groundbreaking study conducted by Stout Risius Ross LLC, which found that if the City of Philadelphia invested $3.5 million per year to fund counsel for eligible low-income tenants facing eviction, the city would save $45.2 million per year in quantifiable costs and expenses, a return of over $12 for every $1 spent. Evictions drive job loss, poor performance by children in schools, physical and mental health issues, increased shelter costs for the newly homeless, higher rates of juvenile delinquency, family instability, other social problems, and an increased administrative burden on the court system. The city and its taxpayers must absorb most of the costs of these problems, which could be avoided by providing tenants with counsel and reducing the eviction rate.
City Council introduced right to counsel legislation in May, which would expand legal representation for low-income tenants facing eviction. A hearing on the legislation will be held by City Council on Oct. 29. Right to counsel legislation for low-income tenants facing eviction has already been passed in San Francisco, New York City, Cleveland, and Newark, N.J. Similar legislation is advancing in Detroit, Los Angeles, Denver, and other cities across the country, and has been proposed in Congress.
We commend Mayor Kenney, City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, and City Council for recognizing that eviction defense is an effective tool to reduce poverty. Let us make Philadelphia the next city to join the national movement by passing a right to counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction.
Rochelle M. Fedullo, Esq., is the chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. Joseph A. Sullivan, Esq., and Catherine C. Carr, Esq., are co-chairs of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Civil Gideon and Access to Justice Task Force.