Social justice spotlight: Wesley Stevenson

For our “Social justice spotlight” series, we ask students who participate in Sheller Center clinics and programs to talk a bit about their experience.  This week, we hear from Wes Stevenson, a third-year law student.

Over the past year, I’ve been working with the Sheller Center’s Justice Lab Clinic to end the City of Philadelphia’s practice of charging parents for their children’s incarceration costs.  During that time, every person I’ve talked to about the issue has expressed the same outrage and confusion I felt when I first learned this was happening.  Yes, this really happens, and it happens all across the nation.

This work is critical because the practice is fundamentally unjust, it hurts families during a critical time, and it has no real financial benefit for the City. And it has been going on for a long time.  Our work has been about ending the practice so no more families face these support orders.  But it has also been about holding the City accountable, for imposing these costs on working families for years, and ensuring that when the practice does end, it ends for good.

Philadelphia City Council has scheduled a hearing on the practice for March 3, 2017, at 11:00 a.m., in the Council chamber at City Hall.  I am grateful for the opportunity to testify at that hearing, alongside affected parents and advocates, and I’m hopeful that by the time I graduate, these collections will have officially stopped.

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.

“First lockup, then debt”: Philly practice of charging parents for their children’s incarceration hits the news

Earlier this year, Justice Lab students Wesley Stevenson, Kelsey Grimes, and Sela Cowger, in collaboration with the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, began to investigate Philadelphia’s practice of billing families for the cost of incarcerating their children. The students’ efforts caught the attention of the Inquirer, which ran an in-depth article on the practice today, with quotes from student Wes Stevenson and Clinical Professor Colleen Shanahan.

Besides noting the hardship imposed on Philadelphia households, the article points out that the city’s practice reflects a national pattern in which juvenile justice systems are increasingly passing on their costs to families already living in poverty.

After receiving the Justice Lab analysis and working with the students since last spring, City officials told the Inquirer that they want to end the practice of billing parents, and are in discussions with the state Department of Human Services.  (Meanwhile, the private attorney who does the collections under a contract with the City told the paper that being billed for their children’s incarceration can actually help families, “because once the child‐support payments end, it’s like getting ‘a raise.’” )

For the full article, click here.

Next steps on Traffic Court issues affecting returning citizens

This fall, Justice Lab students are continuing to work with their client, Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE), on problems identified in our report, Proposed Solutions for Improving the Experience of Returning Citizens with the Philadelphia Traffic Division.  That report showed that traffic fines and license suspensions dating from before an individual’s incarceration can present a major barrier to employability years later.

Students are surveying Philadelphians at expungement clinics and other community events in order to gather more data about the experiences of returning citizens with traffic issues.  The students are also developing a pilot legal services program through which PLSE will offer direct help to returning citizens, with the hope that the program will eventually be implemented around Pennsylvania.

Gabrielle Green L’18, a Justice Lab student, had this to say after attending a community event:  “I think the biggest learning moment today was meeting people where they are.  One of our client’s missions is for the past to not affect an individual’s future in regard to their employment potential, and it is good to hear about some of the barriers, and the hopeful solutions.  It made me understand that although we may be small in number, we can still have a big impact in making change happen.”

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 returning citizens in Montgomery County

Students in Justice Lab are representing three organizational clients this semester.  One client, the Montgomery County Public Defender Office, has asked Justice Lab to develop strategies to incorporate reentry into the Office’s holistic approach to criminal defense.

Students are focusing on early interventions, including at the pre-trial phase, for individuals charged with crimes.  A few weeks into the semester, students are connecting with critical stakeholders, including lawyers and other service providers inside and outside the Office to fully understand the impact of incarceration on Montgomery County residents.

Amanda Cappelletti L’17 is one of the Justice Lab student attorneys.  After attending a community meeting with her client, she reflects: “So much of what I heard about the toll incarceration and arrests are taking on the individual and the community was unfair and it made me sad and angry.  There was a lot of talk about the injustices often faced by people in their community.  But at the same time, I think I also felt some hope.  I was sitting with a group of people, who for no other reason than selflessness, wanted to find some way.”

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…”

Removing barriers for people returning from incarceration

Among the barriers faced by Philadelphia citizens returning from incarceration, unresolved traffic fines and driver’s license suspensions loom large.  Unless they’re addressed, these problems can impair the person’s ability to earn a living; and, because the underlying offenses typically date back many years, resolving them can be complicated.

Enter Justice Lab students Aaron Bindman, Zane Johnson, and Dennie Zastrow, who worked with their client, Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, to develop solutions.  The team interviewed stakeholders in Philadelphia, surveyed returning citizens, and researched and spoke with individuals in other jurisdictions.  Their report, “Proposed solutions for Improving the Experience of Returning Citizens with the Philadelphia Traffic Division,” contains a number of common-sense proposals, including converting outstanding fines to time served or to community service; simplifying Traffic Division materials, and making sure that they include understandable information about the availability of payment plans for traffic fines; educating returning citizens on how to navigate the Traffic Division process; and more.

Aaron reflected on his work on the project: “It was not until we started talking to returning citizens that we began to understand the magnitude of these problems and the impact our work could have. Every potential employer we encountered required a non-suspended driver’s license, no matter the job. Impossible-to-pay traffic fines and resulting license suspensions were another unnecessary barrier to those individuals returning to society. Our Justice Lab project offers several solutions that could help returning citizens avoid being punished over and over again.”