New $65M legal center hopes to be game changer for Philly’s poor

Jessica Hilburn-Holmes, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, stands near the site at 8th and Race streets in Chinatown that will be the Equal Justice Center. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Jessica Hilburn-Holmes, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, stands near the site at 8th and Race streets in Chinatown that will be the Equal Justice Center. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Low-income residents in need of free legal services will soon be better connected to Philadelphia’s network of non-profit resources.

That’s the aim of the Equal Justice Center, which will put more than a dozen of the city’s civil legal aid groups under one roof — a first in Philadelphia.

It’s hoped the one-stop-shop model will cut operating costs for member tenants, make it easier for people to access the pro-bono help they provide, and reduce the number of low-income residents representing themselves in court.

“All the research shows that people who are represented by lawyers do much better than those who are not represented by lawyers. So basically as a society what it means is that we’re failing a significant portion of our population because they don’t have the money to pay for a lawyer,” said Jessica Hilburn-Holmes, executive director of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, the organization spearheading the $65 million project.

The nine-story building, steps from the heart of Chinatown, will house more than 300 employees from Community Legal Services, the Public Interest Law Center, and the ACLU of Pennsylvania, among other organizations.

A rendering of the Equal Justice Center (photo provided)

Collectively, these groups will be able to help clients with a wide range of legal issues, including child custody, landlord-tenant disputes, and wage theft.

“Almost anything you can think of,” said Hilburn-Holmes.

Curtis Shiver wishes the Equal Justice Center had been around in 2017 — the year he fought a lawsuit filed by his North Philadelphia landlord and filed a countersuit against the same man.

During the roughly yearlong legal battle, Shiver enlisted the help of attorneys from Community Legal Services and the Public Interest Law Center. The two cases overlapped, forcing Shiver to repeatedly shuttle between offices on public transportation, costing him precious time and money.

He said it would have been much easier to go to one building to see lawyers from both organizations.

“It would definitely be a benefit,” said Shiver

Shiver’s landlord claimed he owed more than $6,000 in back rent not long after a plumbing problem sent raw sewage into the apartment he shared with his wife and four children.

That wasn’t true.

Shiver then sued his landlord, in part to recoup damages for belongings that were damaged by the sewage that pushed out of the toilet, sink and washing machine. The mess also forced his family to stay elsewhere.

“It was devastating,” said Shiver, who settled the suit for roughly $35,000.

Rent for tenants at the Equal Justice Center will remain below-market rates, said Hilburn-Holmes, freeing up organizations to plow more money into direct legal representation.

That could be a game changer, said Anita Santos-Singh, executive director of Philadelphia Legal Assistance, a non-profit currently renting near Center City that works with victims of sexual abuse.

Because of tightening budgets, Santos-Singh said a “significant” portion of her organization’s clients only get legal help outside of the courtroom, including guidance on how to represent themselves.

“The market is just becoming unaffordable,” she said. “And so, the ability to keep the rental rates at a lower level is a huge benefit, allowing us to save some money and be able to put it into staffing.”

The project is largely funded through a loan and private fundraising. So far, the state has awarded $3.5 million through the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program.

Construction is expected to start in the fall for a January 2022 opening. Affordable and market-rate apartments are also slated for the development, which will stand on a plot between 8th and 9th Streets, Race to Vine.

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