By: Michaela Whitelaw, Public Health Fellow
According to a 2017 study by the Reinvestment Fund, approximately one in 14 Philadelphia renters (20,000 families) face eviction filings every year, with filings disproportionately affecting African Americans and women. In 2016, over 10,200 Philadelphia renters were evicted, placing Philadelphia fourth in the country for the number of evictions that year. The Philadelphia eviction crisis is a result of systemic and social issues entrenched in a history of poverty, discrimination, and gentrification. While some evictions are legal and fair, a large number of eviction rulings are unjust, harming the lives of vulnerable individuals and families.
As a result of relentless efforts by tenant advocates, community members, legal aid lawyers and City officials, like City Council Member Helen Gym, Philadelphia has instituted legal measures to help reduce the number of unlawful evictions. Beginning in January 2018, the City instituted a rule requiring that landlords provide evidence that they have been in compliance with Philadelphia law prior to seeking back rent or filing for eviction. For example, before successfully filing a complaint, landlords must show not only a rental license, but proof of rental suitability for the entire period for which they are filing the complaint and seeking back rent. In the past, it was not uncommon for landlords to successfully file a case against their tenant without such proof of legitimacy. The City allocated $500,000 annually for anti-eviction efforts, including providing lawyers for the overwhelming majority of tenants without legal representation, which currently stands at over 90%. Having a lawyer can significantly increase the chance of a successful result for tenants, who are often unaware of their legal rights and have been subject to unlawful landlord practices. Furthermore, in June 2018, the Mayor’s Task Force on Eviction Prevention and Response published a Report and Recommendations detailing the state of the eviction crisis in Philadelphia and providing actionable steps the City can take to address and improve this issue.
Providing legal representation and services for those who are most vulnerable, including those facing unsafe housing issues and evictions, is at the heart of the work being done by HELP: MLP. Attorneys work alongside nurse home visitors to provide free legal services to low-income women, children, and families in an effort to address a range of social, economic, and environmental issues that negatively impact health. Over a quarter of all legal issues addressed by HELP: MLP are related to housing and utilities. Since 2016, HELP: MLP attorneys addressed 187 housing and utilities matters leading to substantial improvements for families’ quality of life and health. Attorneys have assisted clients with a range of housing needs including preventing eviction, improving housing conditions by asserting tenant rights, and obtaining appropriate housing for clients with disabilities. Attorneys successfully prevented eviction for 14 clients in Philadelphia. Additionally, through landlord-tenant litigation, attorneys successfully avoided judgments charged against clients and helped clients obtain better housing conditions and monetary judgments. In 14 cases, clients avoided having to pay judgments or were awarded judgments in amounts of up to $11,850. Through these proceedings, clients maintained safe housing, attorneys forced landlords to improve housing conditions, and clients were assisted in relocating to safer and healthier housing when necessary. Additionally, attorneys successfully prevented utilities shut off in 10 cases.
In her testimony to City Council members during a hearing on evictions, Public Health Nurse Erin Blair provides this account of the impact of legal representation for clients:
“After moving into an apartment when she was eight months pregnant, our client noticed that there was no heat in the apartment, no stove in the kitchen, and a major sewage backup in the basement. The landlord also neglected to comply with the Philadelphia lead law and other rental laws. The Department of Licenses and Inspections issued multiple violations and filed code enforcement actions against the landlord. The landlord eventually filed an eviction action against our client who chose to withhold rent after tolerating the conditions for nine months. Our client was referred to the NLP [Nursing-Legal Partnership] attorneys for assistance. They immediately agreed to defend the eviction and filed a counterclaim against the landlord. In January, the Court ordered the landlord to refund the full amount of rent received, $9,600. Instead of an eviction on her record, she has a judgment against the landlord.”
One does not have to look far to see the positive impact that HELP: MLP and other similar legal service providers can have on the lives of those with unmet legal needs, especially those facing unsafe housing and unlawful evictions.