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PA House Panel Considers Tenant Right To Attorney

Matt Smith
Keystone Crossroads
Judge Tonya Butler presides over eviction court Nov. 25, 2019, inside the Magisterial District Court in Reading.

Much of the discussion around evictions in Pennsylvania has focused on eviction bans or financial assistance for tenants and landlords.

But legal advocates and some Democratic state lawmakers are promoting another step – guaranteed legal representation.

While all people have the right to a lawyer in criminal cases, that is generally not true for civil cases, including landlord-tenant disputes.

Legal experts testified on the possibility of providing that guarantee in Pennsylvania at a recent hearing in the state House Democratic Policy Committee, led by lawmakers from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The federal ban on evictions is in effect until the end of the year and offers some protection to people who submit a declaration under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s order.

But John Pollock, an attorney with the Maryland-based Public Justice Center said, applying the order at the level of local courts is far from straightforward.

“They’re making different determinations about, does it prevent filings, does it prevent sheriff’s actions only, does it allow the landlord to challenge the tenant’s declaration and so on and so forth,” he said.

Pollock says eviction court is more complicated than ever, which makes it all the more urgent for tenants to have representation.

But attorney Rasheedah Phillips said tenants frequently lose disputes with landlords — because they don’t understand the legal process.

“Unlike landlords who typically come to court as repeat players with attorneys at their disposal, most tenants have very little knowledge of how to prepare and present their cases in court,” she said.

Phillips and other witnesses noted the impacts of evictions on tenants and communities are far-reaching and disproportionately affect Black renters, particularly women.

Even in cases that are likely to end in eviction regardless of whether a tenant has representation, lawyers can help them negotiate better terms that make the consequences of displacement less impactful.

Cities including New York City and San Francisco have granted tenants the “right to counsel” in recent years, changes Pollock said have allowed 84% and 67% of renters with lawyers to stay in their homes, respectively. Eviction filings have dropped in both cities, he said.

The idea is not new to Pennsylvania.

In 2019, Philadelphia City Council passed legislation guaranteeing representation to tenants facing eviction.

The Philadelphia Bar Association commissioned a study that found un-represented renters had a 78% chance of getting a ruling that could result in “disruptive displacement.” But tenants with lawyers avoided eviction 95% of the time. The so-called Stout report also said that landlords in Philadelphia had attorneys in 80% of cases, compared with just 7% of tenants.

University of Pennsylvania law professor Catherine Carr noted in her testimony, the coronavirus pandemic has slowed the law’s implementation, which was originally slated to take five years. Still, she said, existing advocacy programs have helped tenants in Philadelphia, and called on the state to take broader action.

“We are really talking about law enforcement,” she said. “Tenants cannot enforce the law on their own.”

Carr was part of similar discussions that took place in 2013, when the state Senate Judiciary Committee analyzed the right to counsel in civil cases, including housing issues. Lawmakers never proposed any legislation, however. At that time, a group of legal professionals reported  funding free legal services to meet the needs of low-income Pennsylvanians would cost $50 million. Then and today, proponents argue that such a move would save money by easing demand for social services, including shelters.

“We were trying to get corporate leaders to testify at that; we were really trying to build a movement, without a lot of success,” Carr said.

Read more from our partners, WITF.