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In the face of all the challenges of the pandemic, there has been at least one silver lining in Philadelphia: the development of an impressive eviction diversion program that has helped keep tens of thousands of Philadelphians in their homes.
Building upon lessons learned during the mortgage foreclosure crisis, the Philadelphia court system implemented an eviction diversion program that has become a model for the entire country on how to prevent evictions and effectively use federal funding allocated under the various COVID-19 relief packages passed by Congress. Philadelphia’s program has been hailed as a success in the Congressional Record and by the Biden administration, including in a letter sent by the U.S. Department of Justice to courts nationwide in order to raise awareness about available rental assistance and avoid a wave of new evictions. Other Pennsylvania counties have adopted similar programs as well.
Despite the success of Philly’s eviction diversion program, its continuation is in jeopardy. The program has operated under a rules change granted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that expires at the end of October.
Before the pandemic, Philadelphia averaged 20,000 evictions per year — fourth in total filings among the largest U.S. cities. Now, Philadelphia Municipal Court sees far fewer — just 5,000 this year to date. Local and federal moratoriums played a role, but the dramatic drop is due in large part to the city’s unique approach, which pairs assistance with mediation in lieu of court proceedings for eviction.
Congress last year created the Emergency Rental Assistance Program to help keep residents in their homes and make landlords whole during the pandemic. Philadelphia received nearly $200 million through this program, via both the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan.
As cities, counties, and states around the country struggled to get federal assistance to those who needed it, Philadelphia created a win-win system for tenants and landlords — establishing a program that prevents evictions by helping tenants pay rent.
This is crucial in a city like Philadelphia, where 73% of landlords only rent one or two properties, and those small landlords provide the bulk of the city’s affordable housing stock. These small landlords often are in a similar economic situation as their tenants. They aren’t sitting on inherited wealth or raking in cash — and have no huge financial cushion. When tenants can’t pay the rent, these landlords often can’t afford to operate the properties or meet their own basic needs.
The Philadelphia courts required landlords to apply for rental assistance and participate in the diversion program before filing for eviction. This process ensured eligible landlords and tenants would access the federal funds and prevent the expense and trauma of eviction in as many cases as possible. The program provides a housing counselor to help tenants complete rental assistance applications, assess finances, and determine whether other issues need to be addressed. It then provides mediation between the two parties to address such issues. This early intervention also helps tenants avoid an adverse court ruling that could affect their credit rating and make it more difficult to find housing in the future.
The whole program was possible because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a series of time-limited orders allowing it — but the most recent one will expire Oct. 31. The Philadelphia Courts applied to extend the diversion waiver again. Now, the state Supreme Court just has to approve it.
Philadelphians need this groundbreaking, effective, and efficient program to continue. Based on recent data (as of Oct. 22) the City has distributed over $206 million in assistance to more than 34,000 households since the PHLRentAssist program began in May 2020.
Although there have been reports that Philly’s assistance program is in danger of running out of funds, the U.S. Treasury is planning to reallocate unused ERA money from regions that either don’t need the funding or failed to set up programs to disburse it, so there is the potential for millions of additional dollars in rent relief to come to Philadelphia. Extending the eviction diversion program would help ensure this funding gets to residents who need it most.
Our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet complete, and there are thousands of applications for eviction assistance still working their way through the system. We have the opportunity to help tenants avoid eviction, while also helping landlords avoid vacancies and costs that come with unit turnover.
If evictions resume at the scale we saw before 2020, Philadelphians will be on the street, landlords will lose income, and much of the city’s affordable housing could be sold off.
Our most vulnerable families, and our regional economy, cannot afford a wave of evictions. Eviction prevention, whether through legal assistance or rental support, has been proven to have net positive financial and benefits to our communities. Rather than allow the abrupt end of a successful program, the Pa. Supreme Court has the opportunity to continue providing stability to litigants and to the courts. This is the kind of program we should be looking to replicate throughout the Commonwealth, not cut short.