Philly Council committee votes to extend landlord-tenant mediation mandate

Rowhouses in Bridesburg.

Rowhouses in Bridesburg. (Bastiaan Slabbers for Keystone Crossroads)

A Philadelphia mandate requiring landlords to mediate conflicts with renters before filing for eviction is on track to be extended through March 2021.

City Council’s Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development, and The Homeless on Wednesday voted to extend the mediation-based eviction diversion program, supporting the continuation of a program designed to prevent displacement while keeping landlords whole.

The legislation originally sunset the program at the end of 2020. The bill will now advance to the full council for a final vote on Dec.10.

Introduced by Councilmember Helen Gym, the bill passed after some negotiations over the details. Originally, Gym wanted to extend the mediation mandate through June 2021.

The other amendment gives the city wiggle room over what counts as diversion. Originally, a formal mediation had to happen through the program within 30 days on the date provided automatically when the landlord successfully applied to the program.

Now, mediation doesn’t have to be as formal. A mediation counts as long as it has one or more of these standards:

  • A conference between a landlord and a tenant that has experienced hardship related to the pandemic to get an agreement after lease violations for pay
  • A designated mediator and housing counselor that helps the tenant prior to the conference to educate and provide resources
  • Any other methods established by the formal eviction diversion program

Landlords still have to wait 30 days after they apply for diversion to file for eviction.

A sit-down or less formal conference among housing counselors and other advisors can be a substitute. This means that housing counselors now have the flexibility to attempt to resolve disputes.

When both the landlord and tenant show, the overwhelming majority comes to an agreement and avoids eviction. But when either the landlord or the tenant fails to show at a scheduled mediation, the success rate is a little over half. The differing metrics were a sticking point in negotiations about the program, with program backers in City Council arguing with the Kenney administration about how to measure overall impact.

Paul Cohen, attorney for the Homeowner’s Association of Philadelphia, said the bill’s impact — however you measure it — was a drag on landlords. He would like to see the mediation mandate removed and the program turned into a voluntary option.

If the city insists on mandating mediation, Cohen wants the requirement to kick in after landlords file for eviction. His rationale is that if the tenant doesn’t abide by the agreement after mediation through the program, then the property owner is back to square one.

“You had a lease agreement and then they violated it … so why do another agreement that doesn’t help me?” Cohen asked.

In the future, he also would want the program to be officiated through the courts rather than the city.

Another factor in the program’s success is the availability of rental assistance to help tenants keep the repayment plans agreed upon in mediation.

“Without funding attached for actual rental assistance programs, payment plans become more of a challenge,” Councilmember Gym said.

City Council will convene next week for a hearing about Philadelphia’s plan to spend down city COVID-19 emergency funds. The legislative body will consider a proposal to spend $2.5 million of the city relief money on rental assistance to be distributed through the diversion program. A second hearing will focus on city plans to spend down a new allocation of federal grant dollars sent through the CARES Act. A large chunk of that relief package is slated for rental assistance.

Anne Fadullon, director of the Department of Planning and Development, said the city has tried for months to access existing rental assistance programs. That federal money has to be spent by the end of the year.

“We do have a little bit of that money available, so we’re trying to see if there’s a way to utilize some of those dollars,” Fadullon said.

Also next week, there will be a different hearing about COVID-related funds, the bulk of which will be going to some form of rental assistance. It’s unclear if any of those funds will go to the eviction diversion program because the existing programs need to conclude at the end of this year. Fadullon did not say how much money that could potentially be.

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.

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