Keeping tenants struggling to pay rent in their homes while making landlords whole is always a challenge. The coronavirus pandemic made it many times more difficult with fewer resources and many more tenants facing the threat of eviction. Recognizing the danger of people losing their homes during a public health crisis, the city launched a new Eviction Diversion Program as a temporary fix — but it should become the norm.
On August 31st, the day before the city and state eviction moratoria expired, Philadelphia launched the effort as part of the implementation of the Emergency Housing Protection Act, a package of legislation championed by Councilmembers Jamie Gauthier, Helen Gym, and Kendra Brooks. The law requires mediation before a landlord files an eviction in court when a tenant has suffered economic hardship related to the pandemic.
In collaboration with legal aid groups, social services providers, and the mediation non-profit Good Shepherd, the program brings together landlords and tenants to discuss resolution. A volunteer mediator, often a former judge, facilitates the discussion. A housing counselor from a nonprofit such as the Urban League connects with the tenant before the mediation session to help assess their situation, what they are able to pay, and what resources could be available.
Mediation through the program started mid-September, with the number of sessions growing over time to 90 a week. Early reports suggest that most landlords and tenants agree on a resolution.
The program is based on Philadelphia’s foreclosure diversion program, hailed nationally as a model that formed in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
The Eviction Diversion Program and the requirement of mediation is set to expire at the end of the year. On Thursday, Council will vote on whether to extend it through March. Not only should Council pass the extension, they should consider making the program permanent.
Getting landlords and tenants to come to an agreement is a common outcome in Municipal Court. A Reinvestment Fund analysis of all residential eviction filings in 2017 and 2018 (nearly 40,000 cases) found that 34% of cases resulted in an agreement —usually a payment plan or timeframe to leave the property.
But even if resolved, an eviction filing can harm tenants. Eviction records are public, permanent, and wreak havoc on tenants’ credit scores and future housing prospects. A mediation process that potentially prevents a filing mitigates that damage.
There are other advantages of a diversion program instead of agreements in court. The outreach by housing counselors could increase the number of people who appear for mediation (currently a third of all eviction filings result in ruling against the tenant because they didn’t show up, often because they didn’t receive notice). There is more flexibility in scheduling, unlike court there are no added fees that get added to the tenant’s debt, and tenants get an advocate in the counselor — one that is knowledgeable not only on the law but on available resources.
Landlord interest groups claim the diversion program prolongs the process for landlords, because if mediation fails, the eviction process has to start at square one. But the Eviction Diversion Program has the potential to help landlords more than court. An eviction, particularly with jammed courts, often means a prolonged process that all but promised that the debt won’t ever be recouped. By helping renters get connected to assistance, landlords are more likely to get their funds.
The program will also reduce pressure from the courts, key as an avalanche of filings is expected once the CDC moratorium expires at the end of the year.
The more funds available for counselors and tenants to tap into, the more landlords will get more of what they are owed. The Kenney administration has prioritized renters in their spending of CARES Act dollars, but those are running out. Meanwhile, Congress is nowhere close to passing another relief package and Republican Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell’s latest proposal doesn’t include funding for housing or states and municipalities. That’s a disgrace.
The Philadelphia Municipal Court deserves credit for extending a moratorium on lockouts through the end of the year after Council failed to do so, potentially preventing an even greater surge in coronavirus cases. But if the main goal is to keep tenants at home, housing court should be used as last resort — not a first step. Diversion should be the norm, during the pandemic and after.