Residents of Philadelphia will still be able to take advantage of the city’s nationally recognized Eviction Diversion Program.
While the legislation still has to be signed by Philly Mayor Jim Kenney, the city council voted on Oct. 13 to extend the effort through July of 2024. It was initially set to expire at the end of 2022.
Created in September 2020 as a temporary way to address the economic crisis created by the pandemic, Philadelphia’s program was enshrined in law in January 2022. Philadelphia Code 9-811 requires landlords to participate in good faith in the program before they can file an eviction case against their tenant in court. They have 30 days to settle with the aid of a trained mediator.
Since the program’s creation, more than 3,000 landlord-tenant pairs have participated, and the vast majority—over 80 percent—were resolved outside of court.
Philadelphia’s program is one of 46 eviction diversion efforts in 29 states across the U.S. Such programs allow landlords and tenants access to various services in the hopes of avoiding a formal order of eviction. Eviction diversion programs serve all parties, according to a fact sheet from the Network for Public Health Law.
“These programs are premised on the idea that early intervention can effectively meet the needs of all parties: ‘the landlord gets paid, the tenant gets housing, and public health gets protected,’” the fact sheet notes.
Eviction is devastating for tenants, often preventing them from finding housing in the future and acting as “a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.” Still, those who receive some early assistance—anywhere from 67 to 90 percent—can avoid eviction. Meanwhile, landlords can be spared court and legal fees, unit cleanup and inspections, advertising and turnover, the various costs of vetting a new tenant, and the loss of income from rental properties associated with eviction.
“Some estimates place the sum of these expenses at upwards of $10,000,” the fact sheet points out. “… the average tenant facing eviction is only $1,000 to $2,000 behind on rent.”
Trained Mediators Work with Parties to Reach an Agreement that Works for Everyone
While it includes other elements, including rental assistance and tenant education, the main focus of Philadelphia’s Eviction Diversion Program is mediation. The service is free for all residential tenants and landlords. In fact, it’s required of all landlords before they file an eviction proceeding in court.
The process is as follows:
Landlords must provide tenants with the Notice of Rights. They then have to apply for Eviction Diversion through the city’s website. At this point, tenants cannot apply for eviction diversion. Once the application is approved, the city will assign the landlord-tenant pair to an appropriate pathway, depending on the amount of back rent and fees owed, as well as other factors. A tenant may be assigned a housing counselor, a mediation session, or additional resources such as a webinar.
Mediators are trained by CORA Good Shepherd Mediation Program. The parties (and their attorneys, if they have them) join mediators in a conference call for a one-hour session. The parties discuss rent, utility payments, repairs, lease terms, and any other matters of dispute.
Sometimes the conflict is resolved at the first session, but sometimes a second call is needed. If an agreement is reached, the mediator records the stipulations. Both the landlord and tenant verbally sign the agreement, and copies are provided to all parties.
If a good faith effort is made to reach a reasonable solution, but they can’t come to an agreement, the mediator will send out an email documenting that no agreement was reached. In this case, the eviction may proceed to court.
Tenants also have access to a variety of resources.
Once a tenant has received the Notice of Rights, they’re encouraged to call a tenant hotline and visit a tenant website that provides information on how to proceed. The program’s website also includes information about emergency tenant protections, legal aid for low-income tenants, domestic violence resources, and interpretation services.
Philadelphia has seen incredible success with the program, according to an editorial by the Philadelphia Inquirer in August of 2021.
“Not that long ago, Philadelphia had the fourth highest number of evictions of any city in the country,” the editorial board wrote. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, fewer evictions were filed in Philly than in at least 18 other cities. It is possible to make this the new normal.”
Other Options for Eviction Diversion Include Tenant Education, Rental Assistance
While mediation has been highly successful in Philadelphia, it’s not the only option. It’s already been demonstrated that educated tenants are less likely to be evicted.
Some eviction diversion programs seek to provide tenants with a better understanding of how the eviction process works with training on renter rights and responsibilities, legal counsel, social services, and tenant handbooks, among other tools. Other jurisdictions have also created collaborative housing courts that incorporate social services and education into the court process and allow courts the discretion to control the pace of an eviction case.
Another option is providing direct rental assistance. Philadelphia’s rental assistance program has already distributed $300 million to 46,000 households in the city.
The 2022 budget includes $30 million for direct assistance. Direct payments to youth have proven successful in Washington state and New York City. And on average, tenants facing evictions are just $1,000 to $2,000 behind in rent.
“A small subsidy can be enough to sustain most tenants and avoid the worst health and economic impacts of eviction,” the Network for Public Health Law fact sheet asserts.
The trouble with rental assistance programs is that too many people need assistance from programs that are poorly funded, to begin with, in part because of political opposition.
“Due to a lack of public funding, the Eviction Diversion Program established in Durham County, North Carolina, was only able to reach about 50 of 900 tenants who faced eviction each month during its pilot year,” the Network for Public Health Law cited.
However, there are well-funded programs like HomeStart, which partnered with the city of Boston starting in 2010. Ninety-five percent of clients remain safe from eviction for non-payment four years after the original filing, thanks to HomeStart’s assistance. The program prevents more than 400 evictions a year.
According to Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Policy Development and Research, while it’s best to utilize a combination of these efforts to address the eviction crisis, any of them will still help.
“Although comprehensive programs offer the greatest benefits, programs more limited in scope that focuses on a single intervention… still benefit tenants, landlords, and courts more than a reliance on formal eviction proceedings would,” wrote Melissa Hammer and Sean Martin. “Tenants can remain in their homes, ensuring their housing security and reducing potential stress on the social safety net that displacement might cause. These programs benefit landlords who receive payment for past-due rent while avoiding costs associated with eviction proceedings and finding new tenants.”
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