(Getty Images photo)
By Brian Saunders
PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project (PEPP) was created in 2017 in collaboration with City Council and Mayor Jim Kenney to assist tenants facing eviction through legal services, mediation services and training.
SeniorLAW Center is one of the programs that partnered with PEPP to provide legal services for people aged 60 and over who are dealing with tenant-associated legal issues.
Jacob Speidel is the director of Tenants Rights at SeniorLAW Center.
Speidel says many seniors have struggled to keep up with rent for various reasons throughout the pandemic.
“People sometimes think of seniors as having a fixed income and being immune to financial crises,” Speidel said. “Many seniors are either not receiving benefits yet because they’re not old enough or they’re working on top of receiving retirement benefits, or they’re dependent on financial help from family members who are working.”
Announced in August 2020, the Eviction Diversion Program allows for an agreement between landlords and tenants without getting courts involved. The program was established to help tenants with financial difficulties during the pandemic.
Speidel said the Eviction Diversion Program had allowed seniors who lost income during COVID to get proper legal counsel on rental-assistance options that helps them avoid being removed from their homes.
Although the Eviction Diversion Program does not guarantee funds for rental assistance, Philadelphia set up a rental-assistance program during the pandemic that saw thousands of applications, not all being processed. With the help of the diversion program, mediations help landlords and tenants resolve the problem before it reaches the point of filing for eviction.
The diversion program was set to end at the end of December; however, City Council unanimously voted to extend the program through 2022 during last week’s session.
“Philadelphia’s Eviction Diversion Program was created in an emergency and crisis,” Councilmember at-Large Helen Gym said. “It happened before we had hundreds of millions of dollars in rent assists coming through. It happened before we knew how long the COVID crisis would last. But I think what this council body ultimately understood was that COVID exposed existing breaks and crises within a system. It didn’t just create them.”
Gym said that in Philadelphia, poverty runs rampant throughout the city and is a lived experience that comes with eviction. Before the pandemic, Philly had the fourth-highest eviction rates in the country, processing around 22,000 per year.
“For two years in a row, Philadelphia, the poorest large city in America, has reduced the number of evictions by 75% from 22,000 evictions in 2019,” Gym said. “We did 4,500 less than in 2020, we’ll be around 6,000 or a little bit more than that in 2021. So there are alternatives to what has often been one of the worst days of some people’s lives, which is having everything you own thrown out with no advanced notification.”
According to Gym, over $230 million in funding has been distributed as rental assistance to 40,000 households.
Before the pandemic, there was a 90-day waiting list when filing for evictions in municipal court, and it is currently 30 days. Gym said she wants people to know there are options, and the success rate with the diversion program is 93%.
“My hope is that this program will continue to evolve and grow and that our account for council body and our city will continue to evolve and grow in our responses to a complicated situation, but one that has been devastating to thousands of Philadelphians,” Gym said.
The diversion program’s extension saves many people from being locked out of their homes, Speidel said.
“Without this extension, a lot of tenants would have had evictions filed against them in court and would not have had a defense to eviction because they owe them money,” Speidel said. “It buys more time and assistance to try and get the money paid out to the landlord before people end up in court and end up getting locked down.”
Brian Saunders is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.
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