Philly’s problematic “Live Stop” policy

When a Philadelphia motorist is found to be driving without a valid license or registration, the Police Department tows and impounds the car.  The driver must pay — sometimes upwards of $1,000 — to get the car back, in addition to any fines resulting from the violation.

State law does not actually require towing in most of these situations. But the City’s “Live Stop” policy calls for it anyway, mostly ignoring other options. According to Karen Hoffmann and Katelyn Mays, students in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic who recently wrote a report on Live Stop, “Philadelphia seems to be one of the only cities in the nation with such an aggressive [towing and impoundment] policy.” (Some exceptions were created in response to a 2011 lawsuit filed by Stephen Sheller, who helped to create the Sheller Center for Social Justice.)

Among those harmed by the policy are undocumented immigrants, since – in a double whammy – state law makes them ineligible for drivers’ licenses (a problem discussed in another Sheller Center report). Thus, when an undocumented driver is stopped for even a minor violation, a license violation is also found and the car is towed. As Ms. Hoffmann notes, many of these drivers have valid registrations and insurance: “These are people who are trying to do the right thing, and the law is getting in their way.”

More generally, Live Stop imposes needless financial hardship on people who are struggling to get by.  As the report puts it, “Philadelphia should not have a policy that unnecessarily impoverishes city residents.” According to Ms. Hoffmann, moreover, the City seems unclear about how the policy was created or why it exists. “I learned how obscure city policies can be,” she says, “and how hard it can be to get to the root of where they came from.”

In researching the policy, the team worked closely with the New Sanctuary Movement, many of whose members have been affected by Live Stop. The experience, according to Ms. Hoffman, was “valuable, sometimes frustrating, definitely eye-opening.”  Read the full report here, in English or Spanish.

From words to practice: implementing Philadelphia’s new wage theft ordinance

Each week, hundreds of thousands of workers across Pennsylvania are paid less than they are owed, or are not paid at all. This troubling fact comes from a 2015 report from the Sheller Center, which also found that federal and state agencies lack sufficient resources to enforce these workers’ rights.

Could legislation at the local level help fill the gap? Advocates for low-income workers thought so. Last year, citing the Sheller Center report and other data, they urged Philadelphia’s City Council to take action. Council responded by unanimously enacting an ordinance establishing penalties for wage theft and creating a new office of Wage Theft Coordinator.

Passage of the ordinance was a big step forward — but then came a host of questions about how to implement it in practice. Social Justice Lawyering Clinic students Daniella Lees and Crystal Felix, working with Community Legal Services, tackled those questions last spring. Their product: an extensive set of guidelines for the City and its new Coordinator.

As Ms. Lees and Ms. Felix recognized, enacting a law is one thing; making it work effectively for real people is another. “The most difficult task,” Ms. Lees observes, “was figuring out how to make the new ordinance accessible to and useful for victims of wage theft. This involved considering the needs of individuals with limited English proficiency, recommending a community outreach program, and proposing approaches such as conciliation conferences.” The guidelines also address such issues as how the city should determine which complaints to accept, and what standards should be used in the adjudication process.


Billing parents for their children’s incarceration?!

When Philadelphia children are incarcerated, the City bills their parents for the costs of confining them. And if parents don’t pay, the City garnishes wages, withdraws funds from bank accounts, or garnishes tax refunds.

Justice Lab students Sela Cowger, Kelsey Grimes and Wesley Stevenson worked this spring with their client, the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project, to seek a moratorium on this practice. The team’s research included interviews with attorneys who represent children, the City attorney who handles collections against parents, and parents who had been sued.  The students also met with members of Mayor Kenney’s administration.  While the problem is not yet fixed, there’s reason to be optimistic that it will be soon.

Ms. Stevenson commented: “What struck me most was that every single person we talked to about our project was outraged that the City would charge parents to incarcerate their own children.  From the social worker, to our friends outside of law school, to acquaintances I know in my neighborhood, everyone agreed: it’s just not right. That consensus provided me with clarity and a sense that my team’s work mattered and could have real impact, both in changing everyday lives but also changing attitudes. And it inspired us to extend the length of our project; some of our team will be returning to this fight in the fall semester in the hope that the City will end this harmful policy before the end of the year.”


Supporting low-income tenants

Lewis, Guarneri and Richardson
Paul Lewis, Martha Guarneri, and Palmer Richardson

If you haven’t yet heard of RAD, you probably will soon; HUD’s new “Rental Assistance Demonstration” program promises to reshape the nation’s public-housing landscape. RAD focuses on the fact that, because of funding shortfalls, public housing units have fallen into serious disrepair.  The solution?  Convert public housing complexes to “Section 8” properties, owned by private landlords who will receive subsidies to enable them to rent to low-income tenants.

But these conversions can pose a host of issues and risks for tenants. For that reason, Community Legal Services asked the Sheller Center’s Justice Lab clinic to take close look at the law, the federal guidance, and the experience of other cities.

In collaboration with Prof. Colleen Shanahan and CLS Managing Attorney Rasheedah Phillips, students Martha Guarnieri, Palmer Richardson, and Paul Lewis worked through a thicket of acronyms, statutory requirements, policy questions, and data.  Their report, Philadelphia Rental Assistance Demonstration Program Advocacy Guide: Protecting Tenant Rights and Long Term Affordability, includes recommendations for keeping converted units affordable, as well as for protecting tenants’ rights — to regain housing if they are displaced, to pursue grievances, and to organize.

Ms. Guarnieri noted some of the tensions in the process.  “On the one hand, advocacy is most effective when tenants themselves are at the forefront of the fight for their rights. On the other hand, the RAD program is so confusing that it can take months of dissecting long, wordy statutes and regulations to begin to understand it. HUD needs to make information about the program more accessible to the tenants who will be affected by it.”

CLS’ perspective?  “CLS’ Housing Unit has been advocating locally with PHA and private developers, and nationally with HUD as part of a working group for better protections for tenants and a long-term affordability plan. The [RAD Advocacy] guide is a really big step forward in these efforts…”