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Photo: Philadelphia City Council Flickr
Helen Gym was one of the three main proponents of the Emergency Housing Protections Act to pass City Council last year. Photo: Philadelphia City Council Flickr

Could Philadelphia make its COVID-19 eviction diversion program permanent?

The program helped keep hundreds of Philadelphians in their homes amid the pandemic.

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City Councilmember Helen Gym, the first Asian-American woman to serve in Philadelphia’s City Council, has been leading a human rights agenda since she was first elected in 2016. 

She is the chair of Council’s Children and Youth Committee, and established the city’s first legal defense fund for tenants facing eviction, as well as the first fund to specifically address youth homelessness. 

When Gym found out that one in 14 renters are evicted each year, which translates to nearly 20,000 annual evictions in Philadelphia courts, she got straight to work. 

In December 2019, she spoke to City Wide Stories, explaining that her experience as a former teacher gave her expert knowledge about how evictions majorly disrupt the lives of children and families. 

“Our hearings showed that evictions too often resulted in people losing jobs, going into worse housing, children losing a right to attend their neighborhood school, and families breaking up,” Gym said. 

Philadelphia is the poorest large city in the U.S., and more than half of the residents are renters, and Gym believes that the city must recognize housing as a human right. 

The city is at a pivotal point in history in regards to completely changing the eviction landscape — but they must act quickly. 

Just three days before the CDC’s nationwide eviction moratorium expired, President Joe Biden announced that this crucial protection for renters will be extended through June 2021.  

The impact of evictions during the coronavirus pandemic is very noticeable. If people are exiled from their homes, it’s impossible for them to quarantine themselves and stay safe. 

But evictions remain a serious public health crisis outside of the context of this global pandemic. Fortunately, Philadelphia was able to positively manage evictions, even throughout a year that brought on intense and unprecedented challenges.

When pandemic concerns led to nationwide shut down court closures, Philadelphia’s landlords only filed 4,700 evictions, compared to the similarly sized city of Phoenix, Arizona, which filed 31,000 evictions, according to Eviction Lab data

One of the many reasons for the low eviction filing rate is a result of the Emergency Housing Protection Act, a package of bills put forth by Councilmembers Jamie Gauthier, Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks, that halted evictions and created the Eviction Diversion Program, along with other protective measures. 

City Council unanimously passed this package of five housing bills in June 2020, in an attempt to keep residents in their homes, prevent mass evictions and further stress on city services. 

On May 1, when the three lawmakers introduced the package of bills, Councilmember Kendra Brooks told reporters that she knows firsthand how these protections will have an “enormous impact” on Philadelphia families.

“Today, City Council stepped up to the plate and passed bills that provided needed security for our community members that have been hit the hardest by this public health crisis,” Brooks said. 

When CARES Act rental assistance money arrived, City Council quickly launched PHLRentAssist, a program that offered emergency assistance to those who lost income due to COVID-19, and offered assistance to landlords as well. 

Tenants must have annual earnings that fall at or below 80% of the area median income, or must show that they’ve experienced financial hardship due to the pandemic, or proof that they are at risk for experiencing homelessness. 

Tenants going through the city’s Eviction Diversion Program were prioritized. The program will also be funded until August 2022. 

With this infrastructure in place in addition to rental assistance provided by President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, Philadelphia has a unique opportunity to make this low eviction rate the new normal. 

Making the Eviction Diversion Program permanent could achieve this ideal reality. Since September 2020, the program held more than 1,000 mediations, in which 91% were able to reach an agreement, all while avoiding harmful eviction filing on the tenant’s record. 

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

In her conversation with City Wide Stories in 2019, Gym said that this is an issue that “we can’t carry alone.”

“This has to be a purposeful effort on our part because housing policy is complicated and it’s not always easy to distill into snappy talking points, but it deals with the fundamental and most urgent needs of our people and our communities,” Gym said. 

If Philadelphia is ready to take poverty reduction seriously, it needs to expand on the work it has done in the past year. 

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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