‘It’s a conversation’: Philly’s alternative to landlord-tenant court is preventing eviction

Airdrie Street in North Philadelphia.

Airdrie Street in North Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Falisha Jones has struggled to pay rent since May. She lives with her 10-year-old son and a family friend. Jones is a home health care aide and that friend is also her client. The arrangement worked well until the pandemic hit and her hours as an aide dropped from 42 hours a week to barely 14.

Month by month, Jones knew she was falling behind. She had other expenses to worry about too, like putting food on the table. She tried getting other clients, but a pandemic is no time to build a business that relies on being inside people’s domestic spheres. People didn’t want to introduce new people into their homes, and the slow economy has made her search for other work futile.

“I was panicking,” Jones said. “I don’t want to be on the street again. I know how it feels. I’ve been through it so many times.”

Jones has lived without a permanent address before, home-hopping with her son. The experience is exhausting and she doesn’t want to return to that life, she said.

Last month, Jones entered an eviction diversion program run by a partnership of Good Shepherd Mediation Program and the city. Things started looking up. She got on a repayment plan and got access to rental assistance.

“Once we came out with that agreement, I just felt good,” she said. “There was a big smile on my face. I can stay where I am, and I can still look for a job and still pay what they’re asking for. I was extremely happy about that.”

Falisha Jones and her son, Markeith, 10
Falisha Jones and her son, Markeith, 10. (Courtesy of Falisha Jones)

When Philadelphia enacted the Emergency Housing Protections Act this summer, it mandated that landlords had to use the new Eviction Diversion program through the end of the year for tenants experiencing hardship because of the pandemic. In practice, that means landlords cannot take steps to evict tenants through the courts unless the tenant poses an imminent threat of harm or a meeting can’t be scheduled in 30 days. The mediation-based program is designed for landlords and tenants to settle on an agreement without the involvement of a legal judgment that can stain a tenant’s credit and make finding another place to live difficult.

As of Monday, there were 220 mediations where both the landlord and tenant attended. Out of those, more than 86% were able to either reach an agreement or continue the mediation process. There are 82 with no outcomes yet, but almost 200 more mediations are scheduled in the upcoming weeks.

When the program first began on Sept. 1, after the eviction moratorium ended, there were only a handful of mediations per week. By October, it ramped up to 20 to 40 per week. Towards the beginning of November, the number jumped to north of 60 mediations per week. As of this week, there are consistently 90 mediations scheduled in a given seven-day period.

The program is modeled after a mortgage foreclosure program that ended up saving more than 16,000 homes and counting. That program allowed homeowners and lenders to work out a resolution and keep their homes. The main difference between these two programs: The mortgage foreclosure program operated through courts and the eviction diversion program runs through the city.

Hon. Annette M. Rizzo (Ret.), the brains behind the mortgage foreclosure program, is also heavily immersed in the eviction diversion program. She works as a volunteer mediator. When she was working with foreclosures, she was working with large national mortgage servicers. In this case, she’s working with landlords and tenants who are both struggling. She argued that landlords need to keep their properties, so they stay out of foreclosure.

“The need is ever greater to sustain landlords to make sure they keep their properties up to code and habitable properly for their tenants,” Rizzo said. If landlords fall into foreclosure or stop maintaining properties, the city faces “the threat of more decline,” she added.

How ‘eviction diversion’ works

Moshe Attas is one of those landlords Rizzo and other housing advocates worry about.

The New Jersey-based man owns rental properties in West and North Philadelphia, managing 33 tenants.

Attas said that about half of his tenants are struggling because of COVID-19 related financial hardship.

In September, he was one of the first landlords to apply for the program.

Before the diversion initiative began, it was difficult for Attas to keep in touch with his struggling tenants.

He wrote a letter to all his tenants asking to call to discuss how they were planning to handle paying rent during the pandemic. Some responded, and some did not.

He thought about going to court for those who didn’t respond, but he knew he couldn’t because the courts voluntarily paused evictions. He has gone to court before to evict, and it’s not pleasant, he said. He described the pre-pandemic court as a packed room noisy with someone constantly yelling to turn off phones. Landlords and tenants sit separately with minimal interaction.

Moshe Attas in front of his property on Airdrie Street in Philadelphia
Moshe Attas in front of his property on Airdrie Street in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

He prefers the diversion program.

“When you go to court, there is a lawyer between you and the tenant and you want to get this much, and then she or he wants to pay less, and there’s resentment in the air,” Attas said. “Here, it was a conversation.”

He has now brought three tenants for mediation and is looking forward to doing two more for both rent and utilities. His agreements so far include lowering the monthly rent and a repayment plan for the owed/missed rent. The agreement also outlines how he and his tenants will communicate.

The eviction diversion process

  1. If a landlord wants to evict a tenant, the landlord must first send a tenant a Notice of Rights. The landlord must send it by certified mail or hand-delivered
  2. If the tenant can’t pay because of COVID-related hardship, the tenant can sign a certification and give it to their landlord.
  3. A landlord can right away apply for the diversion with or without getting the tenant’s certification form. The landlord can also wait for the certification within 30 days. If the tenant returns it, the landlord still has to go through diversion and can’t file in court. If the tenant does not return it, the landlord can file in court.
  4. The landlord filed for diversion through the program’s web portal. Philadelphia Legal Assistance reviews all requests. Once completed, the landlord and tenant will be scheduled for a mediation within 30 days. The tenant is assigned a housing counselor. The landlord and tenant will get automatic notifications by email and text of the date and time of the mediation and the phone number to call.
  5. The housing counselor then reaches out to the tenant to support them. This can include discussing their rights, connecting them with rental assistance, talking through payment agreements, etc.
  6. Mediation sessions are over the phone. One of the 80 trained volunteers through Good Shepherd will be the mediators and run the session. The landlord or their attorney is on the phone with the housing counselor and tenant. If an agreement is reached by the end, it’s typed up and sent to both parties. If an agreement is not reached, a necessary follow-up mediation can be scheduled.
  7. The housing counselor follows up with the tenant 45 days after mediation to see if the agreement is still working.

The future of the program

Earlier this month, Philadelphia Municipal Court paused most evictions through the end of the year. The court order came after weeks of negotiations between landlord advocates and City Council over a package of bills that would have similarly paused evictions and extended other protections.

Now City Councilwoman Helen Gym wants to extend the mandate that requires landlords and tenants to enter the diversion program.  Without Gym’s proposed extension, the mandate will expire at the end of the year just as evictions are slated to restart, potentially displacing people as the coronavirus continues to rage. The city has funding to continue the program through June but without the mandate there is no guarantee landlords will choose to use it. That presents a health risk for the whole city, Gym said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health experts, say eviction and displacement in general presents a threat during a pandemic, increasing the chance of community spread as people leave the safe zone of their homes.

“We want to center housing as a human right and especially during a pandemic where keeping a roof over your head is core to public safety and public health,” Gym said

Gym is scheduled to discuss the bill during the next housing committee hearing Wednesday.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

Follow PlanPhilly

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal