Philadelphia Passes Renters’ Right to Counsel

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The law is a win for housing advocates, but gaps remain in city’s rental protections.

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Housing rights advocates in Philadelphia scored a major victory last November with the passage of a municipal law guaranteeing low-income tenants facing eviction the right to an attorney.

The law requires the city to provide “full legal representation” to any tenant facing eviction whose income is no greater than 200 percent of the poverty line. Income-eligible tenants are also guaranteed an attorney in non-eviction-related proceedings involving the termination of housing benefits or violations of the city’s housing code, as well as the first appeal of any covered proceeding. The city will contract with non-profit legal service organizations to provide the now guaranteed services.

The new law was initially introduced by Council Member Helen Gym (D) and co-sponsored by six other councilmembers. It passed unanimously. “When a city with the highest rate of poverty of all major U.S. cities establishes this bold right for our most vulnerable renters, we are leading the country towards justice for all,” Gym said after the vote.

In a public hearing before the vote, housing rights advocates testified about the benefits of the proposed law. Noting that the “eviction crisis is disproportionately affecting black women and their children,” attorney Barrett Marshall of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia argued that free legal representation has “the power to create access, to generate equity, to save lives.”

No one testified against the bill, but the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors submitted a letter to City Council opposing the law. Chris Somers, president of the realtors’ association, reportedly stated in the letter that the law would discriminate against property owners “who cannot or do not have the financial capability to engage lawyers” and accused the city of “unfairly tipping the scale by deciding to interject in a civil case.”

A recent report prepared for the Philadelphia Bar Association found that between 2007 and 2016 around 80 percent of landlords were represented in housing court compared to just 7 percent of tenants. The report estimated that providing legal representation to low-income tenants would cost the city about $3.5 million each year but would result in about $45.2 million in annual savings—a return on investment of $12.74 per dollar spent. The economic benefits of legal representation include, among other things, city cost-savings related to education, juvenile justice, and welfare; reductions in eviction cases filed over time; and better enforcement of existing rental market regulations.

Existing municipal housing regulations rely on tenant enforcement to function effectively. Philadelphia’s lead paint law, for example, prohibits landlords from evicting tenants or collecting rent when the landlord has failed to comply with strict disclosure requirements. Unless tenants know to assert their defenses under the law, however, these penalties are not enforced. Free legal representation for tenants should thus help ensure that Philadelphia’s existing rental housing regulations function as intended.

Philadelphia’s right to counsel law is the latest legislative victory for the national “civil Gideon” movement, which seeks to extend the right to legal representation beyond criminal proceedings and into the civil context.

In 2017, New York City became the first major U.S. city to provide free legal representation for low-income tenants. Like Philadelphia, New York guarantees an attorney to tenants with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line. The program is being phased in by zip code and will be fully implemented by 2022.

A progress report from New York City’s Office of Civil Justice shows that between 2018 and 2019 the program provided legal assistance to approximately 105,000 New Yorkers in approximately 41,000 households. Tenants that received representation through the program remained in their homes in 84 percent of cases citywide.

Since 2017, San Francisco and Newark, New Jersey have also passed similar right to counsel measures.

Compared to New York City, San Francisco, and Newark, however, Philadelphia’s regulatory protections for renters remain relatively meagre. All three of the other cities, for example, have implemented some form of rent regulation to protect tenants from sudden rent increases. Almost half of rental units in New York are rent-regulated, and San Francisco and Newark both have near-universal rent control for older residential units.

New York, San Francisco, and Newark also each have some form of “just cause” lease protections. Just cause protections prevent landlords from terminating a tenancy without providing a legally acceptable reason, such as nonpayment of rent or damage to property. They often apply even at the end of a lease term, effectively granting tenants a right to renew their lease.

Just cause protections apply to most residential leases in Newark under state law. And New York and San Francisco both require just cause to terminate tenancies in rent-regulated apartments but not market-rate units.

Philadelphia passed a just cause law last year, but it applies only to month-to-month leases. Because most tenants in the city have year-long leases, the law leaves many households unprotected.

Tenant advocates in Philadelphia celebrated the passage of the right to counsel law. But they are already pushing for stronger protections, including expanded just cause and rent control.

Council Member Curtis Jones (D), who championed Philadelphia’s just cause law and co-sponsored the right to counsel bill, has stated that he is “not interested in rent control.” But Mayor Jim Kenney (D) has signaled that he is open to expanding renter protections, including rent control.

“The way in which our neighborhoods are gentrifying now really does call for additional action to keep people safe in their rental properties, as opposed to being forced out by gentrification,” Kenney said. “Certainly we are open to listening.”