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Testimony in Support of the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project


Testimony in Support of the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project

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Rasheedah Phillips, Managing Attorney of the Housing Unit at Community Legal Services, gave the following testimony at a Philadelphia City Council budget hearing on May 8, 2019

Good afternoon, my name is Rasheedah Phillips, and I am the Managing Attorney of the Housing Unit at Community Legal Services, which provides free legal advice and representation to over 3,000 low-income tenants living in private and subsidized housing in Philadelphia each year.  We also conduct significant advocacy locally, statewide, and nationally around affordable housing and protection of tenant rights. We are grateful to have worked with City Council for several decades to protect tenants and promote safe, affordable housing.  Thank you for the opportunity to testify on the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project today.

Each year, tens of thousands of households face adverse actions related to their rental housing, including lockouts and other forms of illegal eviction. According to studies and reports by the Reinvestment Fund and the City’s Assessment of Fair Housing, eviction rates are highest in Philadelphia’s poor and predominantly black neighborhoods, while evictions disproportionately impact poor communities of color.  Gentrification is ravaging our communities -  a recent study published by National Community Reinvestment Coalition  showed that from 2000 to 2013, due to rapidly rising rents, property values, and taxes , more than 12,000 African Americans in Philadelphia moved out of gentrifying neighborhoods. As the report notes, “the large number of neighborhoods that gentrified, and the number of displaced residents, rank Philadelphia among the worst cities for black displacement.”  This tells us that we not only have a poverty crisis impacting our city’s most vulnerable residents, but that we have a very serious race equity problem impacting black residents’ access to housing in particular. Beyond the damage to individuals and families who are thrust into poverty and homelessness, evictions and forced displacement unravels the fabric of a community, helping to ensure that neighbors remain strangers and that their collective capacity to promote civil engagement remains untapped.

In 2017, the City heard some of its most vulnerable residents demand equal access to justice in eviction court.  With the support of City Council, the Mayor, and the Department of Housing and Community Development, the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project, also known as PEPP, was launched in January of 2018, with funding of $500,000, and a critical increase in funding in FY2019 to $950,000.  PEPP is a collaboration of six outstanding nonprofits:  Community legal Services, Philly VIP, Legal Clinic for the Disabled, Senior Law Center, TURN, and Clarifi. In establishing this program, we joined dozens of cities and states around the country who are exploring similar eviction prevention and legal representation pilot programs, or who have made the bold leap to pass legislation providing universal access to attorneys for tenants.

PEPP significantly increases services for low-income and vulnerable tenants while helping the City to prevent homelessness.   PEPP includes increased representation of tenants by expert public interest and pro bono attorneys, advocacy to help improve court systems and outcomes, a dramatically expanded and accessible tenant helpline, and outreach to individual tenants at risk of eviction.   The project vastly expands the landlord tenant help center at Municipal court and provides for Court navigators, a lawyer of the day and dedicated help center staff.  PEPP also provides financial counseling to tenants to help them plan to meet their housing expenses and to be able to afford to make payments on court approved agreements.  The project provides increased community education in neighborhoods directly impacted by the eviction crisis to educate and empower tenants and communities on their housing rights and responsibilities.

Preliminary findings demonstrate that tenants who saw a PEPP advocate are more likely to show up to their court date, win their case, and enter into agreements with their landlord than tenants who did not. Together we are working to increase and ensure access to justice in the court systems.  We are working to ensure that tenants know their rights before they come into contact with the courts, so that credit-damaging eviction filings and default judgments where tenants don’t get an opportunity to work out resolutions, are reduced.  Findings have also shown that only 5% of tenants with representation experienced “disruptive displacement”, as compared to 78% of tenants without representation.  A continued investment in PEPP to help it expand to full-scale could assist over 4,000 low-income tenants, making it one of the major anti-displacement efforts in the City. 

PEPP has been incredibly successful, exceeding expectations of providing legal representation, legal advice, and other critical services to tenants before facing a life-changing eviction.

Yet PEPP meets only a fraction of the need. Investing in legal services and a right to counsel for tenants is cost-effective and one of the best measures to prevent evictions, housing instability, and homelessness. A recent report of the Philadelphia Bar Association and the Stout firm estimated that every $1 invested into legal representation to prevent eviction saves nearly $13 in costs to city services.  Other reports, including the Mayor’s Eviction Prevention Task Force Recommendations, the City’s recently released “Narrowing the Gap” report, the Housing Action Plan, and the City’s new economic growth plan, “Growing with Equity” all identify several goals that would help fight eviction, displacement, and homelessness, including expanding access to legal representation for low-income tenants. 

For these reasons, it is critical that the City continue its investment in legal representation for low-income tenants.  For the current fiscal year, City Council contributions to PEPP are $850,000 spread across six organizations.  An investment of $1.5 million in FY20 is an important and natural next step towards ensuring that PEPP advocates can continue to provide expert and effective legal representation to tenants facing eviction and displacement.  Continued investment in this program in the long term will mean that every low-income and vulnerable tenant in the City will be able to access critical services to help them avoid homelessness and displacement.  

We need to build on the success of this program. We have gone a long way towards leveling the playing field for tenants, but we need an increased investment to continue to ensure fairness in the court process and prevent homelessness for our most vulnerable residents.

Legal aid is an effective tool to fight evictions and reduce homelessness in Philadelphia and it is cost effective.  Beyond the substantial benefits of legal aid for individual low-income renters, legal aid also benefits our neighborhoods, improves the efficiency of our court system, and saves taxpayer money.  Philadelphia should continue to support PEPP and increase its budget in order to further the success of the program.  We are asking that the City’s investment in this project be increased to $1.5 million in the next fiscal year.

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