Starting Tuesday, low-income tenants facing eviction who live in parts of North and West Philadelphia can receive free legal representation in a pilot program that looks to further strengthen renters' rights and continue lowering the city's once-staggering eviction rate.

More than two years after being signed into law, the Right to Counsel program will launch a pilot that provides free legal counsel to renters in zip codes 19121 and 19139, whose annual gross income does not exceed $27,180 for a single person and $55,500 for a family of four.

"Philadelphia is investing millions in protecting and empowering our renters. This alone is a huge win and change for our city," said Councilmember Helen Gym, who introduced the legislation in 2019 and celebrated its launch during a virtual news conference Monday.

Philadelphia joins New York City, San Francisco, Newark, Cleveland, Boulder, Colo., and Baltimore with its program. It follows on the heels of Philly's nationally recognized Eviction Diversion Program, which helped reduce the number of eviction filings by 75% compared with pre-pandemic levels.

To be connected with counsel, tenants should call the Philly Tenant Hotline at 267-443-2500 to see if they qualify. From there, a representative from the Tenant Union Representative Network will connect the caller with a community legal group best equipped to handle their case, like Community Legal Services or the SeniorLAW Center.

Tenants who may not qualify should still call the hotline to learn about other available resources.

Come July, the city hopes to add four more zip codes to the program's list, with the eventual goal that all low-income Philadelphians will be eligible, said Eva Gladstein, deputy managing director for Health and Human Services. Zip codes with the highest rates of eviction and poverty will be prioritized, and other locations will be added depending on funding available in the next fiscal year, Gladstein said.

A 2018 report from the Philadelphia Bar Association found that when tenants facing eviction were unrepresented, they faced eviction 78% of the time; whereas, tenants with attorneys had a 95% chance of avoiding eviction.

Kadeem Morris, an attorney at CLS, said that 87% of Philly landlords have an attorney, while just 16% of renters do.

"Justice is only served when justice is balanced," said Gym.

"This is just a monumental day for tenants in West Philadelphia," said Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, whose Third District in West Philadelphia includes one of the zip codes in the pilot.

She said the next time a mother calls her office, stressing about losing her home, "I can tell them that they do not have to fight this alone."

Gladstein said about $650,000 has been set to fund the program - covering legal services, social services, tenant hotline staffing, and the program's initial implementation. Gym said that all of City Council has bought into investing in eviction prevention, for which a total of $3.4 million is allocated this year, and that the city is in a "better position than we have been in a very long time" to ensure this remains a priority in future budgets.

The Right to Counsel legislation passed unanimously in City Council in November 2019. At the time, approximately 20,000 evictions were filed annually in Philadelphia - the fourth-highest among large U.S. cities for total evictions - as part of what experts were calling a national eviction crisis.

In the more than two years since, the country has faced a global pandemic that threatened to further that crisis. An eviction moratorium was instituted nationally and citywide in Philadelphia - where about half of residents are renters - and experts feared that once lifted, municipal courts would be flooded with filings.

In September 2020, Philadelphia implemented the Eviction Diversion Program, a nationally lauded model that requires landlords go to mediation with tenants and apply for rental assistance at least 45 days before filing in court for eviction. Although the rental assistance funding ran out last month, landlords still must seek mediation before filing.

City officials said the program has eased the landlord-tenant court's caseload, helping landlords avoid vacancies and turnover costs, and preventing stains on tenants' records that make finding future housing more difficult. Landlords and tenants in more than 90% of cases in the program have either reached agreements or are continuing to negotiate, according to the city.

Gym said that evictions were once thought of as just part of life for many low-income Philadelphians, especially communities of color, which are disproportionately hurt.

"It's just showing that things that once seemed impossible to change can actually completely come undone," Gym said, giving a nod to housing-justice advocates across the city. EllieRushing