June 4, 2020
I write on behalf of the Public Interest Law Center to urge you to vote in favor of the Emergency Housing Protection Act, including the amendments introduced last week. This package of six bills, introduced by Councilmembers Helen Gym, Jamie Gauthier, and Kendra Brooks, provides modest, temporary, and targeted protections that will ensure housing stability for thousands of Philadelphia families who have lost sources of income through no fault of their own because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Law Center has seen first-hand the fear and disruption faced by renters throughout the City during this crisis.
The Law Center has seen first-hand the fear and disruption faced by renters throughout the City during this crisis. We have represented tenants who were illegally locked out of their homes during the city’s Stay-At-Home Order, and have heard from many others. We had been helping tenants in Frankford organize to demand basic repairs and health measures before the pandemic and now we are also representing these renters in negotiations as their financial situations change and they face eviction when the moratorium expires. We are hearing other stories from our colleagues in the larger Philadelphia tenant rights community as they, too, work to ensure housing security for the city’s most marginalized families.
You have already heard much about each piece of legislation, so I will focus on three discrete topics below: (1) proposing modest additional amendments to require notice to tenants of the rights afforded by these bills, as well as information about how to assert the rights; (2) refuting the claim that these bills create unreasonable administrative burdens; and (3) urging Council to reject the additional amendments proposed earlier this week by the real estate industry.
First, the goal of the bills will not be realized if tenants are not aware of the rights that the bills extend or what steps tenants must take to assert the rights. We therefore urge Council to require landlords, when filing eviction complaints, to provide a short plain statement of the new rights, as well as a sample affidavit for tenants to use to assert the rights (CLS has offered a draft of such an affidavit). This could be included with notices that landlords are already required to send out, as well as in the follow up court- issued notice which already includes information about legal service agencies to contact if they cannot afford a lawyer. We note that the bill requiring a payment plan already includes such a notice requirement.
Second, we understand that landlord stakeholders claim the bills impose unreasonable administrative burdens. They do not. With the exception of the notice requirement we propose (plus the notice requirement already in the payment plan bill), the new requirements do not create burdens for landlords, who still maintain their right to all rent owed and eventual possession of the property in the case of a tenant default. We acknowledge that the mandatory pre-filing mediation program could be characterized as an “administrative burden,” but the success of the comparable mortgage foreclosure program demonstrates that such a program actually saves time and money, as landlords can avoid the cost of filing altogether.
Finally, we urge Council to reject the additional amendments offered by landlord stakeholders early this week. While we would have preferred the bills as initially introduced, the compromises already included in the amendments introduced last week responsibly balanced the needs of renters and the interests of landlords. However, the significant additional amendments offered this week go too far and defeat the purpose of giving Philadelphia families the additional time they need to protect and preserve their physical, mental, and economic well-being. First, there is no additional legitimate purpose served by requiring documentary evidence of a COVID-19 hardship. Such documentation may or may not be readily available and individuals may or may not have the means to collect it. Likewise, the requirement that an individual claim and prove that the tenant has experienced a “substantial amount” of harm adds an unnecessary additional hurdle for tenants who already will have difficulty asserting the rights found in these bills. Such additional requirements serve no purpose except to discourage legitimate claims, which certainly would not be the intent of the proposals, and the proposed additional compression of time during which these measures would be in effect would render them superfluous. The new proposal would end the eviction moratorium on the same day that the Governor’s Moratorium Order expires. The proposed new end date for the mediation would end the program before new eviction cases would even start being heard.
In sum, while we commend the City of Philadelphia for its efforts to date, more is needed. The COVID-19 crisis, with its terrifying economic fallout, will not end when Philadelphia enters the “yellow zone.” The most marginalized families in Philadelphia will face long-term financial and social hardships through no fault of their own. It is imperative that this body act to protect its constituents and ensure housing stability to preserve the health and economic well-being of Philadelphia tenants.
Jennifer R. Clarke