Some low-income renters in Philadelphia are now entitled to free legal counsel

Beginning on Tuesday, Feb. 1, low-income renters in Philadelphia’s 19121 and 19139 zip codes will be eligible to get free lawyers when facing eviction, the city’s Health and Human Services Office said. Philly is the seventh city to guarantee free legal representation for low-income renters, and the rest of the city will implement the Right to Know law as funding becomes available.

Right to Counsel is just one of many recently-implemented resources for renters – particularly those most at-risk for eviction in Philadelphia. Being provided with a free lawyer allows renters to be on equal footing with landlords during eviction proceedings, which can curb eviction rates and save money on court fees.

Sarah Peterson, the deputy communications director for Mayor Kenney’s office, said that Right to Counsel will continue to expand into the rest of the city as additional funding becomes available to support the law.

Renters who need a free lawyer can check the eligibility requirements by contacting the Philly Tenant Hotline at (267) 443-2500. Individuals with income at or below 200% of the federal poverty level are entitled to free counsel for eviction proceedings, lease termination proceedings, and PHA housing subsidy termination proceedings. Immigration status does not impact eligibility.

Though the city’s emergency rental assistance program ended in January, the eviction diversion program, which has been lauded by the Justice Department as a method for reducing poverty-based eviction in the city, was extended and became a city law in December.

Funding for Right to Counsel comes from the Eviction Diversion Program’s budget. A 2018 Philadelphia Bar report showed that an annual investment of $ 3.5 million from the city to fund the Right to Counsel law would in turn save the city $ 45.2 million in costs annually.

“Establishing a right to counsel in Philadelphia creates a new and effective tool to ensure the rights of Philadelphia renters and resolve disputes,” said Eva Gladstein, deputy managing editor for HHS. “Evictions overwhelmingly impact women and children and negatively affect the community as a whole.”

The Task Force on Eviction Prevention was established in 2017 as a method of analyzing eviction throughout Philly and works with the Philadelphia Eviction Protection Project to provide resources and support to renters across the city. The Task Force released a report on the state of Philadelphia’s evictions in 2018, which highlighted recommendations for further action.

The report includes recommendations to increase the city’s low-income and affordable housing capacity, provide loans for repairs and keep renters aware of all eviction proceedings to streamline the process.

The Eviction Diversion Program – established as a method to keep renters from being evicted during the COVID-19 pandemic – helps mediate disputes over nonpayment between landlords and tenants in order to prevent poverty-based evictions and solve problems without using the courts.

“Housing is a fundamental human right, and today, Philadelphia is taking a key step forward in enshrining that right for our City’s renters,” said Councilman Helen Gym, the primary sponsor of the Eviction Diversion Program. “This program will save thousands of families from enduring the hardship and trauma of an eviction, which disproportionately impacts Black renters, women, and caregivers. In what was once the fourth highest evicting city in the nation, we are proving to the world that we can end poverty-based evictions. ”

The Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project assists renters in understanding their rights as tenants, and provides individualized meetings with advocates to reduce the eviction rate throughout the city. Clarifi – a financial literacy organization – also provides free housing counseling to renters who contact the PEPP program.

“Often times, renters do not know their rights, and can easily find themselves evicted from their apartment or home,” said Councilman Darrell Clarke, who represents a large portion of North Philadelphia. “The Right to Counsel law is designed to provide them with badly-needed representation, to ensure their rights are protected and to safeguard their ability to remain in their home.”

Right to Counsel representation will be provided by Community Legal Services, SeniorLAW Center, Legal Clinic for the Disabled, Philly VIP, and the Tenant Union Representative Network. All of these organizations operate in conjunction with the PEPP program to provide assistance to tenants, even those who are not yet eligible for the Right to Counsel law.

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