Commentary: Philly tenants should have access to legal aid

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Councilwoman Helen Gym AVI STEINHARDT / For the Inquirer

By Deborah R. Gross,

Catherine Carr,

and Joseph A. Sullivan

'I want my lawyer" is a phrase with which most Philadelphians are familiar, thanks to books, movies, and Law & Order re-runs. What most people do not know is that the right to legal counsel and representation is available only to criminal defendants charged with a crime.

In contrast, every day Philadelphians end up in civil, or non-criminal, courtrooms where they face critical consequences that can upend their life, but where they have no right to a lawyer. They may lose their home or their children or be saddled with large financial obligations. If they are unable to afford a lawyer, they must navigate a frightening and complex legal system alone.

American law recognizes the sanctity of our homes in many ways, but that is not visible when families stand in our courtrooms unrepresented and worried about ending up in the streets. Two major U.S. cities - Washington, D.C., and New York City - are currently considering local laws that will ensure a right to legal counsel for individuals facing eviction or foreclosure proceedings. And now, thanks to a resolution introduced by Councilwoman Helen Gym, Philadelphia is exploring becoming the third.

In September, the New York City Council held a public hearing featuring more than 80 witnesses, including the former chief judge of its highest court, borough presidents, and the New York City Bar Association. They testified in support of a municipal law that would provide legal counsel for low-income tenants who are facing eviction, ejectment, or foreclosure proceedings. Witnesses testified to the damage done to families who lose their homes, the significant cost to the city of housing, educating, and supporting families who end up homeless, and the powerful difference that legal representation makes in these proceedings. Last month, New York's mayor responded by announcing a $93 million increase in legal aid spending over the next five years to provide counsel in these housing matters for low-income families, effectively enacting the right-to-counsel provision.

In October, the Washington City Council held a public hearing on the Expanding Access to Justice Act, which was introduced to provide a right to counsel in civil cases involving fundamental human needs - including housing, safety, education, income, health, and loss of liberty from deportation. This bill is still pending.

On Monday, in response to the resolution by Gym, City Council will conduct hearings to examine the impact of eviction and substandard housing on the health and well-being of Philadelphia's low-income renters. Among the issues that will be examined is establishing a right to counsel for low-income renters in landlord-tenant disputes, including eviction proceedings.

Evictions are complex, technical legal proceedings in which rules of evidence and procedural and substantive law apply. Renters are at a disadvantage in this process. Last year, 81 percent of landlords were represented by lawyers, while only 8.27 percent of tenants were. Of that number, only 1.45 percent were represented by a legal aid attorney. As one would expect, statistics show that tenants usually lose, as they are greatly disadvantaged by not having legal representation.

The consequences of eviction for Philadelphia's low-income residents are severe. Families and individuals who lose their homes in legal proceedings often suffer loss of employment, missed school, damage to physical and mental health, and homelessness. It is clear that at least some of this harm is avoidable.

National studies show that tenants who are represented by lawyers are far less likely to be evicted and far more likely to enjoy safe and habitable housing than tenants who are unrepresented. Simply by having lawyers available to enforce the law, more vulnerable families stay in their homes.

Representing Philadelphians facing the loss of their homes will require funding for more legal aid lawyers, but it is money well spent. Investing in civil legal aid will not only make our justice system work better, but will also save the city money in the long term. A recent economic impact study found that for every dollar spent on legal aid in Pennsylvania, the commonwealth and its residents receive an $11 return.

The financial advantage to expanded legal aid in the city is large. Philadelphia must provide emergency and transitional shelter and social services to families that have suffered eviction, and deal with the educational impact of children thrown out of their homes. The long-term effects of traumatic displacement of individuals and families carry additional costs to city coffers, as well as causing personal tragedy for those involved.

Philadelphia should follow the example of Washington and New York and move toward making legal representation in eviction and foreclosure proceedings a right, not a privilege available only to those who can afford it.

Deborah R. Gross is chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. DGross@kcr-law.com

Catherine Carr (ccarrphila@gmail.com) and Joseph A. Sullivan (sullivanja@pepperlaw.com) are co-chairs of the Association's Civil Gideon and Access to Justice Task Force.