Over the past year, while the city struggled with the safe opening of schools, gun violence, COVID-19 testing, and then vaccination, among other pressing issues, Philadelphia’s proactive response to the looming threat of an eviction crisis was unparalleled.
Philadelphia’s rental assistance program, PHLRentAssist, disbursed more than $65 million, and another $97 million will make its way to landlords and tenants in the coming months. City Council created Philadelphia’s Eviction Diversion Program, which aims to solve landlord-tenant disputes outside of court. This has been a success — leading Municipal Court to require landlords to apply for mediation before filing for an eviction, helping landlords recoup rent and tenants avoid an eviction filing on their record.
The foundation for this work is the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project.
Last week, WHYY’s Taylor Allen reported that Mayor Jim Kenney’s budget proposes cutting the program’s funding in half. Philadelphia is currently experiencing a historically low eviction filing rate. There is no reason to believe that it will stay that way without adequate funding.
Championed by Councilmember Helen Gym and launched by the administration in January 2018, the Eviction Prevention Project funded legal aid groups — such as Community Legal Services and Tenant Union Representative Network― to staff an eviction hotline and provide information and legal assistance to low-income tenants facing eviction.
A 2018 report commissioned by the Philadelphia Bar Association found that an annual investment of just $3.5 million in legal representation could save a whopping $45.2 million in costs by preventing disruptive displacement — the risk of which increases 15 times when a tenant has no representation. In 2019, City Council unanimously passed a Right to Counsel bill that ensures that every low-income tenant that faces eviction has legal representation, an extension of the work already in progress.
A recent study found that more evictions during the pandemic would have led to a substantial increase in COVID-19 spread in Philadelphia, deepening racial disparities as Black Philadelphia renters face eviction at more than twice the rate of white renters.
Right to Counsel remains an unfunded mandate. The Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project is losing funding annually. The project’s funding was $2.1 million in 2019 and $1.8 million in 2020. Kenney’s current budget proposes only $931,000.
In contrast, Kenney’s budget proposes $750,000 in training for police officers to make “positive decisions” and $450,000 for an “early intervention” system to identify problem employees in the Police Department. Those two new budget items alone are more than the entire proposed budget of the Eviction Prevention Project.
The federal moratorium on eviction is set to expire at the end of June — if it even survives legal challenges until then. Federal funding for PHLRentAssist might not be available after next year. Gutting the foundation of the city’s eviction prevention work will risk having all the other programs collapse.
This is a moment for City Council to flex some muscle. It is Council that has the power of the purse and Council that unanimously approved Right to Counsel. It is up to Council to show the people of Philadelphia that when they pass a bill, it means something. And in the context of eviction, legal assistance could mean the difference between a home and a homeless shelter.