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Low-income renters will now have access to free legal counsel when facing eviction in Philadelphia. Photo: Getty Images.
Low-income renters will now have access to free legal counsel when facing eviction in Philadelphia. Photo: Getty Images.

Philadelphia City Council passes bill providing free counsel for low-income renters facing eviction

The “Right to Counsel” bill, first introduced by Councilmember Helen Gym, makes Philly the fifth city in the nation to mandate the service.

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On Thursday, Nov. 14, the Philadelphia City Council chambers played host to a major victory for the city’s low-income renters.

“Right to Counsel,” a bill first introduced by Councilmember Helen Gym, was passed unanimously by City Council. The bill mandates that free counsel be provided for low-income renters facing eviction.

“When a city with the highest rate of poverty of all major U.S. cities establishes this bold right for our most vulnerable renters, we are leading the country towards justice for all,” said Gym in a press release.

Philadelphia is the fifth city in the nation to provide free counsel for its renters facing eviction; the other four are New York City, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Newark, New Jersey.

The move, led by Gym, grounds its rationale in the 2018 findings of Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Evicted”.

He ranked Philly fourth of all big cities in the U.S. for number of eviction court filings. 

Desmond found that those filings disproportionately affect black women-run households.

“Many of them, single heads of household,” said Gym in a press release.

In total, Philly landlords file more than 20,000 evictions a year. Eighty percent of them had a lawyer to represent them in court, while only 11% of renters did.

Now, renters’ representation will be handled for free by a handful of local nonprofit firms — including Community Legal Services. The city plans for the services to be phased in over the next couple years as staff and funding increase.

The work will be funded through the city’s Low-Income Tenant Legal Defense Fund, started in 2017 with an allocation of $500,000. Today, the amount accessible is in the ballpark of $2.1 million thanks to a $1.5 million boost from 2020 fiscal year city budget.

Gym told The Philadelphia Inquirer that additional funding will be sought from outside grants. 

The bill now heads to Mayor Jim Kenney’s desk for final passage before the new year.

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