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The eviction diversion program from City Council has lowered eviction rates across the city. Photo: Michael Bixler

Eviction without mediation? Not in Philly, as Municipal Court backs diversion program

The eviction diversion program was first implemented by Philly City Council as part of its Emergency Housing Protections Act amid the city’s COVID lockdown

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Throughout the pandemic, the whole nation struggled with fulfilling their basic needs such as food and shelter. But one bright spot in Philadelphia was its ability to positively manage a pending eviction crisis through City Council initiatives that halted evictions and created other protective measures. 

The Eviction Diversion Program, spearheaded by Councilmember Helen Gym, enables landlords and tenants to undergo a mediation process and arrive at an agreement without having to go to court. It’s required for all landlords that have had tenants experiencing COVID-19-related financial difficulty.

Since last September, the program held more than 1,000 mediation sessions in which 91% of participants were able to reach an agreement, all while avoiding harmful eviction filing on tenants’ records.

If the city were to make the program permanent, low eviction rates could become the new normal.

On Tuesday, March 23, Helen Gym, along with other City Council members, sent a letter to the leadership of Municipal Court, requesting that they institutionalize the program as part of the court process.

The Court received the request and took action.

On Thursday, April 1, Patrick F. Dugan, President Judge of the Philadelphia Municipal Court, issued an order blocking evictions filed by landlords without first seeking rental assistance and undergoing mediation through the eviction diversion program.

The order requires landlords to use the city’s rent assistance program, which has already distributed over $60 million in rent payments, and just reopened applications after receiving federal relief of nearly $100 million.

The rent assistance program has paid the rent of over 14,000 households and is expected to reach beyond that number in its latest round, which can also be used to pay for utilities. 

According to Princeton’s Eviction Lab, before the pandemic hit Philadelphia, the city had the fourth-highest rate of evictions in the U.S., evicting about 20,000 households each year. 

As a result of the Emergency Housing Protection Act, a package of bills put forth by Councilmembers Jamie Gauthier, Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks, Philadelphia has been able to reduce eviction filings to only 4,700 over the past year, and successfully averted nearly all lockouts. 

Claudia Aiken, the director of The Housing Initiative at Penn, has investigated the success rates of 15 cities across the country that have established emergency rental assistance programs since the start of the pandemic. 

Aiken said that Philadelphia stands out because it’s the only city so far that requires landlords to apply for assistance on behalf of their tenants before they are able to file an eviction, which Aiken has never seen before. 

Gym, often referred to as “Philadelphia’s AOC” is the first councilmember to mandate a tie between rental assistance, a diversion program and the court system. 

“We’re showing that we can transform a system,” Gym said. “Why should we ever start with an eviction? There’s no reason.”

What does this mean for Philadelphia tenants?

Under the new order, landlords cannot file an eviction for a nonpayment unless they first apply for rental assistance from the city and wait 45 days. When a landlord applies, they are then automatically enrolled in the eviction diversion program. 

The intention is that within the 45-day waiting period, the landlord and tenant will have already undergone a mediation process and/or received rental assistance. 

If something goes wrong and a tenant can prove that their landlord did not pursue any of the protection options available in a timely manner or in good faith, they’ll have a legitimate defense against eviction. 

This order will protect tenants through May 16, when it expires. 

After that date, the courts will default to the CDC order which will give tenants some protections, but not as many. 

Under the CDC eviction ban, the tenant must sign a declaration stating that they tried to get rental assistance, their income is $99,000 or less ($198,000 or less for couples), and that they can’t afford rent despite their efforts and they are at risk of experiencing homelessness. 

If a landlord already has a court judgment against a tenant, they can file a court petition to be granted exemption under a few circumstances. 

If the tenant has already vacated the premises, if there is proven criminal activity or property damage, and if the landlord owns five or fewer properties and can prove financial distress, the landlord may still be able to evict a tenant. 

Neither the CDC nor Philadelphia court orders prevent hearings or judgments; they solely prevent landlords from locking out their tenants. 

Important to note: Neither the CDC and Philadelphia court orders prevent hearings or judgements. They exclusively and solely prevent landlords from locking out tenants.

Stephanie Dorenbosch, program manager at Tenant Union Representative Network and a lawyer, said a landlord cannot make any moves to force a tenant out.

“You are always going to have a chance to find out what your rights are and implement them,” she said. “That is the notice that means when they will begin the legal process.”

Tenants can submit a Tenant COVID-19 Certification of Financial Hardship or a CDC declaration form. This will help get late fees waived and a nine-month repayment plan.

 “I am proud that Philadelphia led the struggle for housing justice since the pandemic began in March, when I successfully called for an immediate moratorium on evictions, foreclosures and utility shut-offs,” said Councilmember Gym. 

“Philadelphia has demonstrated that we do not have to repeat the mistakes of the last recession, where banks got bailouts while everyday people lost their homes in a wave of displacement and homelessness,” she added. 

This article is part of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among more than 20 news organizations focused on economic mobility in Philadelphia. Read all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.

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