In a typical pre-pandemic year, according to research from the Reinvestment Fund, landlords in Philadelphia filed around 20,000 evictions. Between 2010 and 2019, that number shrank a bit, as employment, wages, and access to health insurance all inched upward, according to the group’s analysis. But rather than spiking when Covid-19 shut down the U.S. and put millions of people out of work, the eviction rate dropped. In 2020, landlords filed 4,500 evictions against tenants, according to the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project (PEPP), a coalition of legal aid and tenant advocacy groups.
The drop is thanks to a combination of federal moratoria on evictions, emergency rental assistance, and sustained local commitment to programs like eviction diversion, says Rasheedah Phillips, managing attorney for housing policy at Community Legal Services, one of the groups that coordinates PEPP. But Philadelphia is still one of the poorest big cities in America. And as the moratoria begin to expire this year, Phillips says, “The eviction rates are going to go right back up.”
The Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project was launched at the beginning of 2018 with a $500,000 budget. Among the services the group provides are a tenant hotline for tenants to access legal services, a “lawyer-of-the-day” program providing free legal representation to tenants in eviction court, and frequent tenants’ rights workshops from the Tenant Union Representative Network. In 2019, PEPP had a budget of $2.1 million, and last year, after some budgetary negotiations during the pandemic fallout, it worked with $1.8 million, according to Phillips. This year, according to a report in WHYY, Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed budget includes $931,000 for the project. (The city’s press office did not respond to questions about the proposal.) Advocates are now fighting to have at least $2.1 million restored for PEPP in the budget negotiation process between the mayor and city council.
As important as the specific services the project provides to tenants, says Phillips, is the “systemic advocacy” that the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project has brought to discussions around housing and eviction in the city. As the pandemic began, the groups were able to work together to push for an “Emergency Housing Protection Act” which allowed tenants to set up payment plans for past-due rent, waived some rental fees, and created an eviction diversion program in cooperation with a landlord-tenant mediation effort that was already underway. At the same time, the city was establishing an emergency rental assistance program that was seen as a national model for distributing Covid relief funds to tenants. In March, the Philadelphia courts ordered that landlords could not file for evictions without first applying for rental assistance and waiting 45 days. In a recent editorial endorsing full funding for PEPP, the Philadelphia Inquirer called the project the “foundation” for the city’s eviction-prevention work.
“As a result of having PEPP, we were very coordinated,” Phillips says.
According to PEPP, its member groups represented more than 1,200 tenants facing eviction during the pandemic. And over the last three years, the group says that 95% of tenants it’s helped have had “successful outcomes,” and been “more likely to win their cases, avoid default judgments, and enter into an agreement that avoids disruptive displacement compared to all other tenants.”
With less funding, Phillips says, the groups in PEPP won’t be able to hire more staff to meet more tenants’ needs as the eviction moratoria expire. The individual groups will still do everything they can to prevent clients from being displaced, she says, but the cohesion of the work could break down. Additionally, while Philadelphia City Council passed a bill implementing a right to counsel for tenants facing eviction in 2019, the program has never been funded. Phillips says that PEPP was always conceived as a precursor to a right to counsel in the city.
Beyond the fate of one project, the budget negotiations in Philadelphia could be a test of how cities approach housing and eviction as they move beyond the emergency phase of the pandemic and back into something like normal times. In the spring of last year, the Eviction Lab at Princeton University launched a Covid-19 Housing Policy Scorecard to track eviction moratoria and assistance programs by state. At that time, says Anne Kat Alexander, a faculty assistant at the Eviction Lab who helped coordinate the Scorecard work, the response from states was “unprecedented,” as even jurisdictions with historically weak tenant protections began to pass laws restricting evictions. The group wanted to track which laws were most effective, and it focused on states rather than cities in order to get a manageable sample of laws that would also cover everyone in the U.S.
While the group wasn’t tracking all cities, Alexander says Philadelphia caught her attention because of its “multi-pronged approach” to eviction and housing assistance. The best policies are those that prevent eviction filings in the first place, not just those that temporarily block lockouts, she says. And cities that set up eviction diversion, mediation, and right to counsel programs will have a better chance at preventing evictions in the long run.
“Are we going to return to the status quo, which was a crisis, or are we going to continue to work toward a more stable and just housing system for everyone?” Alexander says.
City Council member Helen Gym, who sponsored some of the early legislation supporting the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project, says that Philadelphia enacted “the boldest plan” to fight evictions during the pandemic of any city in the U.S. While it’s not unusual to negotiate over funding for specific programs, especially those that were originated by city council members, she says it’s past time for the city to fund the pilot phases of its right to counsel program. And the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project, she says, has shown how effective it can be.
“We have a chance to truly make poverty-based evictions a thing of the past,” Gym says. “The commitment to right to counsel, and to mandatory diversion through the courts and through a historic rental-assistance program combined, [shows] this is not only possible in our city, but we’ve proven that it can be done. That’s what’s at stake with this budget.”
This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.