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Solving Philly’s ‘eviction crisis’ will take the city committing to free legal help

One of the many signs audience members displayed at the eviction hearing. March 22, 2017 Category: EventFeatureFeaturedLongResults
A leaky ceiling, four inches of sewage waste accumulating in the basement from a broken pipe, squirrels in the roof. The list goes on.

These were some of the living conditions that William Church, a 65-year-old Philadelphia resident suffering from extreme anxiety and COPD, had to endure because of his landlord’s unwillingness to make the necessary repairs. And as much as these conditions affect his day-to-day health, moving isn’t an option.

“I would prefer to remain in my home because I like my neighborhood, it’s close to my church, I have friends in the area and it is close to the VA hospital where I receive my medical treatment,” Church testified at a City Council hearing on eviction and substandard housing held Monday. “As bad as the conditions are right now, I have nowhere else to go.”

As a veteran, Church is just one example of the many groups of people who will be hit the hardest when it comes to the issues surrounding eviction, alongside low-income residents, people with disabilities, single mothers and African Americans, Councilwoman Helen Gym said at the hearing’s start.

“We are living in a Philadelphia eviction crisis that targets the poorest residents of the nation’s poorest, largest city,” said Gym, who organized the hearing. “And it’s an issue that cuts across so many of our constituencies.”

Gym offered some eye-opening numbers about what eviction looks like in Philly: There were 24,000 evictions in the city last year (which doesn’t include unlawful evictions carried out by landlords) and one in 14 city renters are evicted every year.

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In the case of lawful evictions, tenants — especially low-income tenants — who don’t have legal help will likely have more difficulty in securing future housing because of their record, potentially leading to a cycle of homelessness.

Representatives from a number of agencies and advocacy groups — Fair Housing Commission, Health and Human Services, Community Legal Services (CLS), Office of Licenses and Inspections (L&I), Philadelphia Bar Association’s Civil Gideon and Access to Justice Task Force and more — were all in attendance to speak about different aspects of the problem.

But they all circled back to the sentiment displayed on many of the signs held up by attendees around the room: It’s “basic human rights” they were all advocating for.

William Church and two other city residents testifying. (Photo by Albert Hong)

William Church and two other city residents testifying. (Photo by Albert Hong)

L&I oversees the regulation of around 273,000 tenant-occupied units and their landlords. A big challenge in addressing the issue of substandard housing has been unlicensed units, which Rebecca Swanson, director of planning at L&I, said make up around 20 percent of those 273,000 units. That means there are over 50,000 unlicensed units where landlords could be taking part in unlawful practices.

That’s where rental license regulations come in to make sure property owners are put to task. Swanson said that the office has been working to strengthen those regulations, including with a new policy enacted last month that denies landlords rental licenses if their properties have any open code violations.

But there’s room for improvement — as Swanson mentioned, other cities have implemented an annual inspection program for rental units, whereas Philadelphia’s office almost exclusively handles inspections based on complaints. And as some of the City Council members noted, PECO and PGW have withheld utility data (based on “privacy concerns”) that could shed more light on unlicensed property owners.

Even if renters try to protest against landlords for living conditions by, say, not paying rent, the threat of eviction brings with it more than just the fear of becoming homeless, as testified by Rasheedah Phillips, managing attorney of the housing unit at CLS.

“Judgments based on evictions lead to loss of housing benefits and compromise the ability to get into housing, private or subsidized, for the rest of one’s life, leading to dangerous cycles of poverty and instability,” Phillips said.

It’s why the need to provide free legal representation for tenants facing eviction has become part of what Cathy Carr, former executive director of CLS, called a “national movement for the right to counsel.” And pooling more funding toward this cause will end up saving the city money, she added.

“Putting a lawyer in courtrooms to represent all low-income tenants is actually a simple law enforcement step,” Carr said. “By not spending the money for lawyers and housing cases, our city and state governments instead spend millions of dollars more on the avoidable cost of evictions, shelters, emergency medical care, prisons, public benefits and more.”

Research supporting this was a big contributor to the success New York City recently found in passing legislation that would provide free universal access to legal services for tenants facing eviction, according to Andrew Scherer, policy director of New York Law School’s Impact Center for Public Interest Law, who testified at the hearing.

Scherer said it also helped when funding from the city toward eviction legal services saw a boost from $7 million to $72 million, something that shows how “now more than ever, we have to look to local and state government to ensure that there are policies in place that foster equity, fairness and respect.” (Anne Fadullon, director of Philadelphia’s Planning and Development Cabinet, said housing funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has been cut by 46 percent since 2002.)

Another side effect of eviction? Poor health.

Dr. Dan Taylor, a pediatrician at the St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, has seen firsthand the physical and mental effects on children that trickle down from something like eviction, including developmental delays, asthma exacerbations and elevated lead levels, which he said over the years has illustrated “the limits of [his] profession.”

“As healthcare providers, we are only able to put Band-Aids on wounds that are much too deep and require a more interdisciplinary and holistic approach,” Taylor said.

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