Philadelphia City Council unanimously passed a bill Thursday that will provide free legal representation to low-income tenants facing eviction, all but cementing Philadelphia on a list of cities that have strengthened renters’ rights amid what many say is a growing national eviction problem.

The bill now heads for Mayor Jim Kenney, who is expected to sign it before the end of the year. Once he does, it is anticipated the program will be phased in over several years as funding and staffing are increased.

The legislation, introduced by Councilwoman Helen Gym, supplies legal representation to tenants whose annual gross income does not exceed $24,980 for a single person and $51,500 for a family of four. Any renters who meet income guidelines in Philadelphia — including those living in housing owned and managed by the Housing Authority — are eligible for representation. Tenants will be represented by nonprofit legal services.

Tenant advocates across the country have warned in the last few years that the nation is facing an eviction epidemic, created in part by escalating housing costs, diminishing numbers of affordable units, stagnating wages, and an aging supply of homes. Author and sociologist Matthew Desmond estimates that 2.3 million eviction notices were filed in the United States in 2016 — four every minute.

The problem is similarly severe in Philadelphia, local tenant advocates say, with more than 20,000 cases filed annually — ranking Philadelphia fourth-highest among large U.S. cities for total evictions, according to a database compiled by Desmond. Even more, they say, only about 11% of renters have attorneys during eviction court proceedings, compared with nearly 80% of landlords.

Several attorneys, tenant advocates, and renters testified Thursday, arguing that the impact of eviction can linger for years after a tenant is displaced, increasing the likelihood of homelessness, job and education disruption, and risks to health.

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“The eviction crisis is disproportionately affecting black women and their children,” Barrett Marshall, director of the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project and an attorney at Community Legal Services, testified Thursday. “It is tearing apart longstanding communities.... But what we know is that legal representation has the power to change this.”

Council’s vote met with cheering and applause, as onlookers hoisted signs into the air that read “#RIGHTTOCOUNSEL." After the vote, Gym addressed her Council colleagues, saying, “We have expanded our concept of what is just and right.”

Councilwoman Helen Gym stands with tenant advocates, including public interest attorneys Rasheedah Phillips (second row, third from left) and Barrett Marshall (second row, fourth from left), after Philadelphia City Council passed Gym's Right to Counsel bill.
CAITLIN MCCABE / Staff
Councilwoman Helen Gym stands with tenant advocates, including public interest attorneys Rasheedah Phillips (second row, third from left) and Barrett Marshall (second row, fourth from left), after Philadelphia City Council passed Gym's Right to Counsel bill.

Gym also touted the success of the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project, which was launched nearly two years ago to fight eviction and provide services for tenants. That project has reported providing legal assistance, including free legal counsel in court, to more than 2,000 tenants. Representatives from the project also said that more than 22,000 people accessed legal information from PhillyTenant.org.

“You’ve kept a roof over a woman’s head. You’ve kept children more stable in school, and you’ve helped landlords get paid," Gym said. “All of these are not contradictory, they work together.”

In 2018, the Philadelphia Bar Association released a report that found that when tenants were unrepresented, they faced “disruptive displacement” 78% of the time. In contrast, tenants who had attorneys had a 95% chance of avoiding eviction, said the study, which was based on research by Stout Risius Ross, a consulting firm.

Additionally, the report found, if the city were to invest $3.5 million annually to fund counsel for low-income tenants, it would save $45.2 million because evictions can force the city to spend resources on sheltering homeless tenants and providing public benefits when jobs are lost, among other costs.

Funding for Gym’s legislation will come from the Low-Income Tenant Legal Defense Fund, which Gym has said was started in 2017 with a $500,000 allocation. Today, the fund contains around $2.1 million, in part because of a $1.5 million commitment in the city’s 2020 fiscal budget. Gym said Thursday that the city would look for external financial support, including from foundations.

In the meantime, tenants facing possible eviction may still be eligible for free representation through the Eviction Prevention Project. Gym said Thursday that as the new law rolls out, advocates would work to reach out to areas of the city with high eviction rates.

With the legislation, Philadelphia joins a handful of cities that have instituted “Right to Counsel” legislation, including New York City, San Francisco, and Newark, N.J.

The Inquirer is one of 21 news organizations producing “Broke in Philly,” a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.