Helping Temple students understand their rights as tenants

In this week’s Temple News, journalism student Alayna Hutchinson reports on a plan by students in our Social Justice Lawyering Clinic to provide better information to Temple students — especially undergraduates — about their rights as tenants in off-campus housing. Casey Dwyer and Anna Manu Fineanganofo, 2Ls, developed the plan in consultation with the Office of the Dean of Students, the Cherry Pantry, and the Law School’s student-organized Housing Justice Initiative. Law students participating in the program would offer legal information to students with questions about their leases or rental conditions; if legal advice or representation were needed, a student could be referred to one of Philly’s legal services organizations.

We’re grateful to Temple News reporter Alayna Hutchinson for digging into the important issue — well documented by Temple’s own Hope Center — of how to get more legal help to students with problems involving basic needs.

Students create tenants’ guide for unsafe or inadequate housing

A Tenant’s Guide to Suing Your Landlord: Holding Landlords Accountable for Unsafe Housing Conditions is a step-by-step pro se guide on how tenants can proactively file cases against their landlords for substandard conditions. Many tenants live in unsafe or inadequate homes. This is no accident. Landlords profit by neglecting housing while still collecting full rent from tenants. More than 300 properties in Philadelphia have been cited as unfit for human habitation every year. Tenants rarely sue their landlords, but landlords annually file 24,000 eviction cases in Philadelphia alone.

The guide is an interactive tool with fillable forms, checklists, and worksheets. It walks tenants through the process of identifying their housing issues, providing notice to their landlords, collecting evidence, and preparing for court interviews and hearings. By engaging in the bite-size steps laid out in the guide, tenants will develop their personal statement and evidence (including damages calculation) needed to make a strong claim. Ultimately, the fillable forms in the guide can be submitted to the Court as evidence of the tenant’s case, reducing the barriers and confusion that a tenant may otherwise face in filing a pro se claim.

Lina Ruth Duiker (’22), Ashley Hyman (’22), and Maria Thomson (’22) developed the guide as part of the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. The guide was created on behalf of the Tenant Union Representative Network (TURN), which partners with the community to advocate for a legal system that values housing as a human right. Tenants can bring the guide to TURN or another housing advocate for additional support and individualized advice if needed. By empowering tenant groups and increasing their access to justice, the guide seeks to shift the narrative away from identifying tenant poverty as the primary cause of substandard housing to recognizing the primary role of landlord neglect.

New report: reducing “evictions by default”

Over half of all “legal” evictions in Philadelphia are based on default judgments entered against tenants who have not appeared at their eviction hearings. In these situations, the Court hears from only one side — the landlord — and typically enters a judgment for back rent and eviction in accordance with the landlord’s request. Eviction follows within a few weeks.

By contrast, when both parties are present, the Court tries to help the parties negotiate a settlement. If that can’t be achieved, the judge hears the tenant’s side of the story, as well as the landlord’s, before making a decision.

A new report, “Reducing Default Judgments in Philadelphia’s Landlord-Tenant Court,” addresses some of the reasons that defaults make up such a big part of the Court’s docket. The report is based on the work of students in the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic. Through observations, interviews, and a review of several hundred court records, the students identified  problems with the Court’s operations that, if addressed, could bring the default numbers down.

Some tenants apparently do not appear because they do not get notice of their hearings, or do not understand the notice they received, which is written in complex legal terms (nearly all tenants are unrepresented). Other tenants do not know, since the notice does not tell them, that they can request a change of their hearing date if they have an unmanageable conflict such as a medical procedure. And there are other issues, including the startling fact that the courthouse is barely marked, so that some people miss their hearings simply because they can’t find the building.

Much of the students’ research predated the pandemic and the current moratorium on evictions. But the findings and recommendations are all the more timely now, given the backlog of cases that advocates fear will result in “mass evictions” later this year. The report urges that, as the Court plans for reopening, it take every possible step to ensure that its own procedures do not contribute to the occurrence of “evictions by default.”

The students whose work contributed to the report were Sarah Kim Eisenhard, Alice Elmer, Kevin Kulesza, Xavier O’Connor, Ranjani Sarode, and Julia Sheppard.

“Supporting a right to counsel bill is the absolute least I can do”

That was the view expressed by Xavier O’Connor, a 3L student in the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic, speaking before City Council yesterday during its consideration of an historic “right to counsel for low-income tenants” bill. Xavier and colleagues Julia Sheppard and Sarah Kim have spent the semester researching why so many landlord/tenant cases in Philadelphia result in default judgments  — which then lead quickly to eviction.

As Xavier explained: “Our research has shown tenants don’t know they are eligible for existing services, and often haven’t even been properly notified that they have been called to court. Our research has also shown that there are folks who used existing services from the Help Center on the day of their hearings but wish that they had had legal help beforehand.”

Temple Law, as Xavier pointed out, has a front-row view of Philadelphia’s eviction crisis: “As a Temple student, I walk through a North Philly neighborhood affected by eviction every single day. I see the consequences of displacement and how our legal system dramatically impacts these neighborhoods.”

The unanimous passage of the bill by Council yesterday follows several years of work by legal advocates (including Temple Law graduates Rahsheedah Phillips and Barrett Marshall), the Bar Association, and many others — and will lead to further work, since phasing in legal services will require time, training, and funding. In these efforts, Philadelphia will be able to share ideas and models with a growing number of other cities, including New York, San Francisco, Newark and Cleveland, that have adopted similar legislation.

Xavier summed up the reason for getting involved: “The legal landscape we [as law students] are entering soon is unfair but it does not have to be. It should not be. And I am here today to advocate for its change.”


Let’s end lead poisoning

Philly has taken some steps to protect children from the disastrous effects of lead exposure, but there’s more to do. In an op-ed in today’s Inquirer, Justice Lab students Liz F. Torres, Chris Lin and Tony Sierzega, who worked this semester with Community Legal Services, make the case for four measures that could make a dramatic difference.

Center’s report on affordable housing goes national

Danger of the Opt Out: Strategies for Preserving Section 8 Project-Based Housing in Philadelphiaa report prepared earlier this year by Justice Lab students Rita Burns, Sara Mohamed and Andrew Newstein for Community Legal Services, has been adapted for publication in the next issue of the American Bar Association’s Journal of Affordable Housing and Community Development Law.  

According to the report, Philadelphia is at risk of losing significant numbers of affordable housing units as landlords “opt out” of the federal Section 8 program. The report recommends steps that the city should take in order to preserve as much affordable housing as possible.

Prof. Colleen Shanahan, director of Justice Lab, notes: “Cities around the country are facing affordable housing challenges. This article will allow attorneys, advocates, and policymakers around the country to learn from the Justice Lab student team’s data analysis and proposed solutions for Philadelphia.”

Report addresses strategies for preserving affordable housing

Philadelphia has a severe shortage of affordable housing.  “Danger of the Opt Out,” a new report developed by Fall 2016 Justice Lab students for Community Legal Services, shows that the City is at risk of losing even more affordable units as landlords opt out of participation in the Section 8 program.

The report notes that the loss of housing has a distinct racial impact, since 63% of African-Americans live in project-based housing compared with 44% of the city’s population, and that African-Americans are disproportionately likely to carry severe housing cost burdens. According to the report:

  • Over 9,000 units of affordable housing may be lost in the next 20 years across 86 Section 8 project based properties.
  • Eighteen of those properties are in gentrifying census tracts, which are at greater risk of opt-out due to changing neighborhood demographics. Of the 21 properties with Section 8 contracts expiring by 2020, six are located in a gentrifying tract.
  • A majority of affordable units are at higher risk of opt-out due to the owner’s for-profit status, since a profit-motivated owner is more likely to opt-out when they are able to obtain higher rents on the private market.

​Following release of the report, Community Legal Services attorney Rasheedah Phillips echoed its call for changes in the way PHA does business. Recommendations include stronger requirements for advance notice to tenants when their home is to be removed from the Section 8 program, and the development of an open database of all Section 8 properties and the dates on which their contracts with the program are set to expire.

Philadelphia Weekly covered the report, noting that it “offered a stark reminder of the extent of Philadelphia’s housing crisis.” The report has also been cited in a Harvard Law School blog, as well as by Voices for Civil Justice and other national organizations.

Continued questions about Philly’s “Rental Assistance Demonstration Program”

Last summer, students in the Center’s Justice Lab Clinic released their Philadelphia Rental Assistance Demonstration Program Advocacy Guide.  The “RAD” program, an initiative of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, allows municipalities to invite investors to support “conversions” of housing units from public to private ownership. But according to Justice Lab, which studied the program in collaboration with Community Legal Services, inadequate steps have been taken to protect low-income tenants as conversions go forward.

As a follow-up, Fall 2016 Advanced Clinic student Martha Guarnieri analyzed new RAD conversion data and discovered that the Philadelphia Housing Authority is not disclosing how much housing RAD is creating or which private developers have contracts in Philadelphia.  This information was used in testimony offered by CLS to the Philadelphia Housing Authority and the Philadelphia Division of Housing and Community Development concerning the City’s draft “Assessment of Fair Housing.”  Justice Lab and CLS urged PHA to revise its Assessment to include more transparency and data about the RAD program and its potential impact on the City’s already-insufficient low-income housing supply.

Affordable housing and racial justice

The redevelopment of Philadelphia neighborhoods is putting pressure on the city’s supply of public housing – and on Philadelphia’s poorest residents, who are disproportionately persons of color.  What can be done to ensure that their housing needs are fairly addressed?

With this problem in mind, Justice Lab students are continuing to work this fall with their client, Community Legal Services’ Housing Unit.  While an advanced student continues to work on advocacy related to HUD’s new Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program (see our Philadelphia Rental Assistance Demonstration Program Advocacy Guide, issued last spring), other Justice Lab students are helping CLS develop a long-term strategy to address racial justice in affordable housing in Philadelphia.

Students are collecting and analyzing data about public housing properties, Section 8 contracts, demographics, income levels, gentrification trends, and other factors to identify ways to preserve affordable housing.  This innovative work will allow the students and CLS to develop proactive strategies to preserve equitable, affordable housing in Philadelphia, before tenants are at risk of losing their homes.

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…”