Each of the nearly 20,000 eviction complaints filed in Philadelphia Municipal Court each year carries a lifelong blemish on a person’s tenancy records, regardless of the outcome of the case. There is no presumption of innocence – even when a tenant wins in court or enters an amicable agreement to preserve housing, the filing alone has already caused long-term harm, creating a negative tenancy record following a tenant wherever and whenever they try to obtain housing.
Increasingly landlords are using tenant screening companies, internet searches, and other methods to readily access tenant eviction records. Many landlords will refuse to rent to tenants with even one eviction filing on their record, regardless of the outcome of the case or other details that may offer additional context on a prospective tenant’s past rental circumstances. Landlords may create additional barriers to access by employing “blacklisting” practices with blanket denials of applicants with eviction records.
The consequences of eviction records go far beyond temporary displacement and loss of shelter. Eviction records mean loss of housing subsidy vouchers, ineligibility for other public housing programs, and being screened out of private housing, leading to dangerous cycles of poverty and instability. Unlike a criminal record, which can now automatically be sealed in many categories after a certain period of time, there is currently no possibility of getting the record of an eviction filing sealed or expunged from a tenant’s record in Pennsylvania, even when a tenant wins their case, gets their case withdrawn, or is able to fulfill a court-ordered agreement. Regardless of whether a tenant did anything wrong or was evicted, the mere fact that the landlord filed an eviction case is unfairly held against tenants when they try to rent a new place. Even cases that are decades old, with outdated or irrelevant information, are used to deny tenants access to senior housing and other subsidized housing. And, unlike a credit report which documents trends of changes, a tenant has no ability to improve their eviction records. The absence of current evictions filings does not remove the stain of previous ones. Such filings usually only tell one side of the story, despite having the power to create lifelong housing instability.
Having an eviction record creates a devastating barrier for tenants looking for housing, and one group in particular bears the burden more than others. Eviction records in Philadelphia disproportionately impact Black women and their families, mirroring a nationwide trend where, as sociologist Matt Desmond put it, “poor Black men are locked up while poor Black women are locked out.” Renters in Philadelphia’s majority- Black communities had evictions filed against them by landlords in 56% of all filings. Filings in communities of color since 2015 accounted for nearly 81%, or 90,500 filings.
The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly exacerbated the difficulties facing Black communities and other communities of color, seniors, people with disabilities, queer and transgender people. When you consider that these populations were already disproportionately affected by housing instability the current epidemic has hit these communities like a sledgehammer. In June 2020, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that in Philadelphia, Black patients are dying from COVID-19 at rates over 30% higher than white patients, and that Black and Hispanic women in Philadelphia are infected at rates five times higher than white women. Not surprisingly, early data from the Reinvestment Fund shows that areas with elevated eviction rates fall within zip codes with the highest COVID-19 positivity and hospitalization rates, and that zip codes with higher COVID-19 positivity and hospitalization rates have predominantly Black renters. COVID-19 positivity often comes hand in hand with loss of income and high medical bills that exacerbate what may have already been a struggle to keep up with increasing rents in often substandard housing. Further, as Pew notes, sixty percent of Philadelphians earning less than $30,000 say they experienced a negative job impact, compared with 36% of those making $50,000 to $99,999 and 22% of those making $100,000 or more. This gives us a clearer picture of who is most at risk for incurring the lifelong costs of future eviction records.
What can the city and state do to break the negative stigma of eviction records and dismantle the systemic barriers that cost hundreds of thousands of tenants their access to options for safe and affordable housing?
This policy brief discusses best practices and highlights recommended approaches to addressing the far-reaching and long-term harms of eviction records. Specifically, we recommend:
Passing State Legislation for Sealing Records and Enacting Other Court Policies that Seal or Restrict Access to Eviction Records
Passing Local Protections Restricting the Use of Eviction Records in Rental Decisions and Banning the Use of Blanket Ban Policies
Expanding Agreement Options for Tenants in Landlord-Tenant Court and Implementing Administrative Rules Limiting or Sealing Access to Eviction Filings
This policy brief is presented after close consultation with members of Black and Brown Workers Cooperative and other organizations providing legal representation, counsel, advocacy, and organizing on behalf of tenants in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania.
Please read our new report to learn more about this harmful system and our policy recommendations.
For more information please contact:
Rasheedah Phillips | Community Legal Services of Philadelphia
Dominique London | Black and Brown Workers Cooperative
Jenna Collins | Community Legal Services of Philadelphia