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Testimony on OHCD's Year 42 Preliminary Consolidated Plan

Housing

Testimony on OHCD's Year 42 Preliminary Consolidated Plan

Date Posted: 
04/19/2016

The following testimony was delivered by CLS Managing Attorney Rasheedah Phillips to the Philadelphia Office of Housing and Community Development (OHCD) on April 19, 2016, on their action plan to address housing need and homelessness in the city.

Good afternoon. My name is Rasheedah Phillips, and I am the Managing Attorney of Community Legal Services’ Housing Unit, which provides legal advice and representation to low-income tenants living in private and public housing in Philadelphia.

OHCD’s Year 42 Preliminary Consolidated Plan renews OHCD’s commitment to foreclosure prevention as a means to prevent homelessness.  Community Legal Services (CLS) is pleased to continue our many years of partnership to preserve homeownership for low-income Philadelphians.  Through its contract with OHCD, CLS provides one-on-one consultation for housing counselors regarding their cases; accepts referrals of cases from housing counselors for legal representation; and provides training for counselors on a full range of foreclosure-related topics by legal advocates known nationally for their expertise.  The CLS foreclosure defense program is closely coordinated with the Save Your Home Philly Hotline and the Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program, as well as the OHCD housing counselor network.

The advanced ties between CLS lawyers and OHCD officials and housing counselors, built through years of joint advocacy, training of housing counselors, community education, and legal representation, put Philadelphia at the forefront of this issue and was essential for the creation of the Court’s Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program.  Our partnership has helped save the homes of thousands of Philadelphia residents, and we are very grateful to continue this relationship.

While the number of residential mortgage foreclosures filed in 2015 is down from the peak in 2009, approximately 350 mortgage foreclosures are still filed every month.  Plus, over 100 tax foreclosure cases are initiated each month against homes that we know to be owner-occupied.  Against this backdrop, only 8% of homeowners facing mortgage foreclosure are represented by an attorney.

Funding from the city is essential to the foreclosure-prevention network, including CLS’s work.  Like so many non-profits, CLS’s unrestricted funding has been reduced substantially.  Without OHCD’s continued level of support, CLS will have to reduce our counselor support program, as our mortgage foreclosure practice would have to shrink dramatically. 

With a renewed foreclosure prevention contract, CLS expects to continue to represent over 250 homeowners each year referred by housing counselors, the Save Your Home Philly Hotline and the Foreclosure Diversion Program.  CLS will also train and advise housing counselors on the foreclosure and Foreclosure Diversion process, developments in the Home Affordable Modification Program, and on other issues in representing homeowners in foreclosure at formal training events and at meetings hosted by OHCD.

While CLS appreciates OHCD’s continued support for our mortgage foreclosure work, I’d like to take some time to also talk about the critical need for eviction prevention. On any given day, there are approximately 650 homeless people in the city.  Lack of affordable housing causes severe consequences for the lowest-income households and is one of the leading causes of homelessness among families with children.  The affordable housing crisis is particularly pronounced in Philadelphia, which is experiencing rising housing costs and rents; a study released by the American Communities Survey reported that from 2010-2012, 57% of renters were “housing cost-burdened,” spending 30% or more of their incomes on housing expenses. Providing access to affordable housing is cost-effective, and reduces the collateral costs of homelessness, such as health issues, shelter costs, and expenses from medical, legal, and social services. Safe, affordable, and habitable shelter should also be seen as a basic human need and right. 

While the Year 42 Plan addresses the critical need for foreclosure prevention as a measure for preventing homelessness by keeping people in their homes, it does not address the equally critical need for eviction prevention.  48% of homes in Philadelphia are occupied by renters. Each year, an average of 30,000 households face adverse actions related to their rental housing, including lockouts and other forms of illegal eviction.  Most of these tenants are low income and lack the resources to hire legal counsel, which can keep people in their homes, or at least buy them enough time to find somewhere else to live. Due to lack of resources and capacity, the 5- 6 attorneys who do provide pro bono or low cost tenant representation to low-income Philadelphians are often unable to meet the volume of need. Of the average 30,000 eviction actions filed in Municipal court each year, about 90% of landlords have legal counsel, while only 8% of tenants are represented. Unrepresented tenants are often unable to navigate the complex legal system because of illiteracy, language barriers, disability, mental health, and other challenges. Reviews of Philadelphia Municipal Court data has shown that tenants with attorneys are far less likely to be evicted. Attorneys help tenants navigate the court process, negotiate agreements to stay or time to move, and in some cases, can negotiate rental agreements that can fit a tenant’s budget.  

Investing in eviction prevention, including an increase in rental assistance funds and ensuring a right to counsel for tenants, is cost effective and is the one of the best measures to prevent evictions, housing instability, and homelessness. 

We seek OHCD support and funding support to expand innovative models of right to counsel such as the Philadelphia Landlord/Tenant Help Center Collaborative.  Landlord-Tenant Help Center is a partnership of leaders of the legal services community, pro bono leaders, and the judiciary formed to address the crisis of lack of access to counsel in landlord-tenant court, which has enormous impact on low-income individuals and families and their basic need of shelter. Members of the collaborative include Philadelphia Legal Assistance, Regional Housing Legal Services, SeniorLAW Center, TURN, VIP, Community Legal Services, pro bono leaders from Dechert LLP and other area law firms who volunteer their time. The collaborative has developed and launched the Legal Help Center, a unique court-based model of legal advice, education and referrals to limited representation services. Such efforts could benefit from funding that expands access to counsel and other legal services.  An expansion of access to counsel could include the creation of an eviction diversion program, which would create a mechanism that allows landlords and tenants to resolve back rent issues without a credit-damaging judgment.

Furthermore, while we support the expansion of new options for rental and homeownership units, 530 units barely scratches the surface of community need. 13% of Philadelphians have a disability; adaptive modification programs can make homes livable for people with disabilities, meaning more people integrated into our community and fewer tax dollars being spent on expensive nursing homes.

As part of our housing advocacy work, CLS is a member of the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities- a citywide coalition of 53 community, disability, faith, labor, and urban agriculture organizations joined together to organize for more resources for affordable, accessible housing and green space in our city. We believe that some of the OHCD priorities can support the neediest families in Philadelphia. The Coalition is encouraged to see language that calls for projects that do not directly or indirectly cause displacement. Skyrocketing housing costs and shrinking incomes have meant that, all too often, displacement is a reality in gentrifying neighborhoods. We want to ensure that long-term residents, who are dedicated to their neighborhoods and their community, are able to stay in their homes even as rapid development occurs. The Coalition will be working with members of City Council to introduce legislation that grows the resources in the Housing Trust Fund and we want to ensure that priorities for use of these new funds are given to the very low-income families who struggle the most.

In the Affordable Housing section of the Year 42 Plan, OHCD identifies actions planned under public housing, including the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s initiatives to develop or preserve affordable housing. Under HUD demonstration programs such as Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), tenant rights remain unclear or limited and future changes in ownership entities may create unanticipated barriers to enforcing rights. Because the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) is converting such a large portion of its public housing inventory into RAD properties, we strongly encourage OHCD to support measures to secure tenant rights and long-term affordability guarantees, such as an MOU between the City, PHA, private developers, private owners, and tenants which covers organizing rights, notice requirements, public hearing rights and grievance rights to create clear and consistent rules across the entire affordable housing portfolio.  We also encourage continued, engaged oversight by OHCD on RAD conversion compliance issues that may arise.

We look forward to continuing the dynamic, productive foreclosure prevention partnership between OHCD and CLS in the year ahead, and hope to strengthen our partnership in the area of homelessness prevention for vulnerable tenants. Thank you for your time and consideration.