Hopefully evictions aren’t going “back to normal” like much of the rest of Philadelphia.
After nearly 16 months of moratoriums by the city, state, or federal government, the churn of evictions will return to Philadelphia in the beginning of July. The last moratorium in place, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s order to halt evictions, will expire at the end of June.
Philadelphia’s efforts to prevent evictions and keep tenants in their homes during the pandemic has been revolutionary. With availability of federal relief funds, City Council, Municipal Court, and Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration came together to revolutionize evictions. Philadelphia created a new way to resolve landlord-tenant disputes related to rent. Instead of filing an eviction in court, landlords could go through the Philadelphia Eviction Diversion Program first — where a mediator helps both sides agree on a payment plan and a housing counselor can offer resources that the tenant might be eligible to tap into.
The program was novel and exciting, but what made it revolutionary is that in April the leadership of the Philadelphia Municipal Court made it mandatory for landlords before filing an eviction in court for cases of nonpayment of rent — sparing tenants from a permanent stain on their record. The order has since been extended through the end of June.
The New York Times editorial board, in highlighting the work of Philadelphia, called the pre-filing diversion requirement “elegant” and “the right idea.” That board calls on the city to expand the requirement from nonpayment of rent cases to all cases, and this board agrees.
Everything that Philadelphia has done during the pandemic to prevent eviction should become best practice and part of the city’s routine. Preventing families from losing their homes is not only good for individuals — it is good for the entire city. Evictions produce poverty and lead to racial injustice, disproportionately harming Black women with children.
Unfortunately, the long-term viability of the diversion program is not so simple. The success of the program is that it is well-resourced. Philadelphia has been able to provide landlords and tenants with tens of millions of federal relief dollars. And just as a CDC moratorium extension seems unlikely, so does the prospect of another major federal relief package to infuse consistent cash to the program.
Making a commitment to find the funds in the city budget to have a permanent, robustly resourced eviction prevention and rental assistance program would be the right thing to do. But Mayor Kenney already proposed cutting the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Program — a collaboration between the legal aid community and the city that is the foundation of eviction work in Philadelphia — from $1.8 million in 2020 to $931,000 in 2021.
Fully funding the right to counsel for low-income tenants in eviction cases that City Council passed in 2019 would cost the city about $3.5 million. If Kenney and Council could not find that relatively small amount in a $5 billion operating budget, it seems highly unlikely that there is political will to fund a rental assistance and eviction diversion program with tens of millions of dollars once federal cash runs out.
That is why instead of waiting for rent to be overdue and then finding a solution, Philadelphia should further strengthen renters’ protections and ability to pay.
For example, Councilmember Kendra Brooks’ Renters’ Access Act would require landlords to individually review tenants based on set and public criteria. That means tenants won’t be penalized by blanket policies (such as an eviction record ban) or erroneous information — preventing predominantly Black housing seekers from being squeezed into worse and more expensive housing. Philadelphia also needs more affordable units, and Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez has the right idea in her years-long pursuit of various forms of inclusionary zoning. Her most recent bill, proposing to both limit and increase the fee that developers need to pay into the Housing Trust Fund if they want a density bonus without building affordable units, would reduce pressures on rents, making evictions down the line less likely.
During the pandemic, Philadelphia has reached historically low levels of eviction. As more of pre-pandemic life is coming back, the city could leave mass evictions behind. That would be the real revolution.