New bills introduced by City Councilmember Kendra Brooks have the potential to solve two difficult problems: enforcing housing discrimination laws and reducing the lasting harm of eviction records.
Before the pandemic appended court processes, landlords in Philadelphia filed more than 20,000 evictions with court annually. Regardless of the outcome of the eviction case, each one of these eviction records lives online forever, haunting tenants when they search for housing.
Rasheedah Phillips, managing attorney in Community Legal Services’ housing unit, says that eviction records operate similarly to criminal justice records. They become punitive documents that can cause great harm to a person while not providing much context about specific circumstances. Recognizing this truth on criminal justice records, Philadelphia passed “ban the box” legislation in 2015 that prohibits most employers from asking about criminal background in the job application process. Similarly, Pennsylvania enacted Clean Slate legislation in 2018 that automatically seals older criminal records for minor offenses.
In 2019, State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler of Philadelphia introduced a bill to seal eviction records that did not result in an eviction. The effort went nowhere in a divided Harrisburg.
Enter: Kendra Brooks, City Council’s renter in residence.
Last week, Councilmember Brooks proposed a two-step process to protect tenants who had evictions in their background in what she dubbed the Renters’ Access Act. In lieu of expungement of eviction records, her proposal would require landlords to share with tenants screening criteria and make it accessible for all prospective tenants — leveling the playing field. As part of this criteria, landlords could not deny an application based solely on a prospective tenants’ eviction record older than two years. If the decision to deny was based on information obtained from a private third-party tenant screening database, tenants would have the opportunity to dispute the information.
In other words, the package would require an individualized review of tenants and would create a process to ensure that the information in each review is correct.
In addition to leveling the playing field for Philadelphia renters, Brooks’ legislation will also help enforce fair housing laws.
It is notoriously hard to prove housing discrimination. For example, Philadelphia has a law prohibiting discrimination against people who are paying rent using a Housing Choice Voucher (”Section 8″). But a 2018 Urban Institute study found that two-thirds of Philadelphia landlords refused to accept vouchers.
The problem is that tenants don’t know what the landlord is looking for, so when a landlord denies their rental application, they are left to guess why. Requiring landlords to share criteria for who can rent their units, not dissimilar from a job description, will give tenants a baseline to compare their application against — and a reason to raise a red flag, if something is amiss.
By giving an opportunity to correct information (such as the outcome of eviction filings), landlords too will benefit from not rejecting a potentially good tenant just because of flawed information.