Nonprofit Partners Collaborate with Councilmember Helen Gym to Bring Right to Counsel Legislation to Philadelphia

  • Photo via Community Legal Services of Philadelphia's Twitter

A new bill addressing tenants’ right to counsel in eviction cases was brought to hearing in City Council this month. The bill, aptly named the “Right to Counsel" bill, would guarantee representation for renters below 200% of the federal poverty line, which is roughly $33,820 for a family of two. The bill hopes to further the progress started by the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project (PEPP). PEPP is a collaborative effort launched by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and implemented by several legal service agencies in Philadelphia, including our nonprofit partners Community Legal Services (CLS), Legal Clinic for the Disabled (LCD), Philadelphia VIP, Regional Housing Legal Services (RHLS) and SeniorLAW Center (SLC).

The creation of PEPP laid a foundation for the continuation of the advancement of tenant rights in Philadelphia. Mayor Kenney announced the project in January of 2018 as an effort to reduce the number of evictions and rate of homelessness in Philadelphia. It ensured access to information through services such as a tenant helpline and website and financial counseling.

Since 2018, the agencies involved in PEPP have given expert legal service to over 2,000 tenants facing eviction and represent over 100 tenants in the court room. Despite this success, there are still a multitude of challenges that tenants face and the “Right to Counsel” bill hopes to address the missing pieces of PEPP, as legal representation is still not guaranteed within the program. In Philadelphia, only 11% of renters have access to attorneys in contrast to 80% of landlords, according to PhillyTenant.org.

A right to counsel law already exists in New York City. This legislation further prevents deceptive actions by landlords and provides legal representation that is aimed at upholding the quality of life for tenants in the city. Councilmember Helen Gym, who introduced to the bill, along with nonprofits like our partners CLS and RHLS, believe that bringing these resources to Philadelphia is a necessary step forward.

The bill was originally introduced to City Council in May and then heard by the Committee on Law and Government, where it was unanimously approved. Several individuals shared passionate stories regarding their own experiences as tenants in the legal system at the hearing. Their support, along with the several nonprofits’ commitment, were impactful on the success of this bill.

There was one known objection to the bill from the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors. The association submitted a letter as testimony against the legislation which they feel discriminates against low income realtors and favors the tenant in the eye of the law, but Councilmember Gym has stated that she would be open to discussing ways in which to make the bill stronger.

The legislation was amended to include new language that expands its scope. Rather than restricting the representation to judicial proceedings, it has been opened up to include administrative ones as well.
There will be challenges regarding finances and an increase in caseloads if the bill is passed by the full Council, but they are welcomed by those involved.

The collaboration between councilmember Gym and our nonprofit partners has given life to this exciting development in equal access to justice for tenants. Learn more about “Right to Counsel” on PhillyTenant.org.