‘Everyone deserves an attorney’: City Council advances bill guaranteeing legal aid to renters facing eviction

Belinda Thomspson, 69, wipes away tears as she tells how her brother tried to evict her from her mother's house. She spoke during a hearing on a City Council bill that would guarantee legal counsel for those facing eviction. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Belinda Thomspson, 69, wipes away tears as she tells how her brother tried to evict her from her mother's house. She spoke during a hearing on a City Council bill that would guarantee legal counsel for those facing eviction. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A bill that would secure lawyers for low-income renters in eviction court moved out of City Council committee Tuesday. The move sets the stage for a final vote before the full legislative body as soon as Nov. 14.

“This bill is rooted in the basic and steadfast belief that housing is a human right,” said Councilmember Helen Gym. “Today is about making sure we use every tool at our disposal to keep folks in their homes by creating a more fair and just system.”

The hearing turned emotional when several tenants gave testimony about their tumultuous relations with landlords, weeping as they described the difference having a lawyer made for their cases.

“I am a good tenant in an impossible situation,” said Laron Campbell, a renter who lives in Southwest Philadelphia and struggled with a landlord who refused to make repairs or deal with sewage bubbling up through the kitchen sink.

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Laron Campbell, a Philadelphia resident who narrowly avoideded eviction with the help of Community Legal Services, testifies during a City Council hearing on a bill that would guarantee legal counsel for evictees. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

As the landlord moved to sell the property, he allowed potential buyers to come check out the house at all hours, waking Campbell and scaring her when she got home from work.

But unlike most low-income Philadelphia renters, Campbell was able to secure legal aid. She then learned her landlord did not have a rental license or certificate of occupancy for the property. She decided to withhold rent to force the repairs. In response, the landlord moved to evict her.

“No one should have to live in these conditions,” said Campbell, who got to keep the rent money she’d been holding in escrow, as well as her security deposit, and had the case against her withdrawn.

“I know that this was possible because I had representation,” said Campbell. “Everyone deserves an attorney, someone to help them understand the process and stand up for them in court.”

Audience members at Philadelphia City Council listen to testimony on a bill that would guarantee legal counsel to those facing eviction, a problem that disproportionately affects black women. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The legislation, which Gym introduced earlier this year, would guarantee legal representation for renters below 200% of the federal poverty line, roughly $33,820 annually for a family of two.

The bill was amended in the hearing to expand its scope to encompass not just judicial proceedings, but administrative ones as well, which means the law would cover fair-housing cases before the Philadelphia Fair Housing Commission and a variety of cases before the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

The new language could make hundreds, perhaps thousands, of additional cases eligible for right-to-counsel protections.

Currently, of the 20,000 eviction cases in Philadelphia every year, roughly 30% are defaulted upon because tenants do not show up in court. Renter advocates anticipate a surge in cases as more tenants learn they can expect legal aid, all of which will increase the estimated $3.5 million cost of the assistance.

“We don’t have an exact estimation [of the impact of the amended bill’s broader scope],” said Gym. “We are looking to make it a more expansive right.”

City Councilmember Helen Gym listens to testimony during a hearing on her bill, which would guarantee legal counsel for those facing eviction. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Rue Landau, executive director of Philadelphia’s Fair Housing Commission, confirmed that as many as 90% of the tenants who come before her office do not have legal representation. She said that the amendment could be challenging for her office, as she anticipates a surge in cases, but that she welcomes the change.

Gym also stressed that the legislation will go into effect over a multi-year timeline, which will be determined by the Managing Director’s Office. She noted that in New York City, which has a right-to-counsel law and far more resources than Philadelphia, many tenants are still unaware of their rights. As a result, targeted outreach is required to get the word out, and she does not foresee the system becoming immediately inundated with cases.

Eva Gladstein (right), deputy managing director for Philadelphia Health and Human Services, speaks in support of a bill that would guarantee legal counsel for people who are being evicted. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

No member of the committee voted against the legislation. The only opposition testimony was a letter submitted by the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors, which argued that the bill discriminates against low-income landlords and tilts the field in favor of tenants.

“The City is unfairly tipping the scale by deciding to interject in a civil case and possibly aid only one side, the tenant, and never the property owner,” the letter reads. “Under this Bill the Government is discriminating between two private parties in a civil proceeding.”

Gym said that she only heard of the Realtors’ objection on Monday night, but she noted that her door was always open for conversations about how to make the legislation stronger.

The Kenney administration is expected to support the bill.

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