Councilmember Helen Gym Takes Aim at Philadelphia’s Eviction Crisis

Councilmember Helen Gym (At-Large) introduced Right to Counsel legislation (Bill No. 190386), which was passed by City Council in November. We spoke with Gym about why it is critical to provide city-subsidized lawyers for all low-income renters facing eviction and why fair housing violations are so rampant in Philadelphia.   


Gym, a former teacher and longtime community organizer, was just appointed Chair of a new council committee for Children & Youth. When she found out that one in 14 renters are evicted annually – almost 20,000 evictions a year in Philadelphia courts – and that 70 percent of evictions impacted Black women and single mothers, she got to work. 


“As a former teacher and educator, I knew eviction functioned as a major disruptor in the lives of children and families. More than being a symptom of poverty, it perpetuated and exacerbated it,” Gym told us. “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.” 


In the poorest large city in the country, where more than half our residents are renters, Philadelphia must recognize housing as a human right. Gym said they’ve been fortunate to have research organizations like The Reinvestment Fund and a public interest legal community which had been working on a Right to Counsel effort for years. They started with a pilot effort that grew into a Right to Counsel campaign. Gym said it was an honor to partner with housing activists, city legal advocates, and city agencies to win this law.


From March 2018 through March 2019, the Fair Housing Rights Center in Southeastern Pennsylvania received 190 complaints. Legal evictions occur in landlord-tenant court. Gym’s team found was that while almost every landlord had access to an attorney, only a fraction of tenants did. Almost 90 percent of renters were unrepresented, and most didn’t even bother to show up for court. “One witness who testified at our hearing said that as soon as she walked into court and witnessed the line-up of lawyers representing corporate realty interests and landlords, she knew she would lose. With so much at stake, low-income tenants need and deserve attorneys in a court of law,” said Gym. 


The Right to Counsel legislation arose out of the recognition that renters needed greater protections and access to resources, and that negotiation and arbitration could ensure that renters could get assistance, abusive situations were addressed, and landlords could still get paid. More important, Gym said it was a commitment on the part of our City to balance the scales when so much was stacked against low-income renters. 


Philadelphia has an aging housing stock with rental units that have unmet repair needs or are flat out substandard in a city where our residents too often cannot access or have challenges in accessing resources to keep up their properties. “But while Philadelphia’s 26 percent poverty rate exacerbates the situation, our city is hardly unique. This nation has left housing behind,” said Gym. “Our federal government has failed to expand much needed housing programs such as vouchers and infrastructure investments and it has failed to strengthen anti-discrimination and bias laws which are at the heart of fair housing violations. Without greater federal support, Philadelphia and cities across this nation have limited capacity to meet the essential need for housing in our communities.”


Gym’s team started this work in 2017, when the city established the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project (PEPP), which provides a helpline, diversion programs and lawyers for qualified renters. “We saw an immediate reduction in evictions, thanks in part to rule changes in landlord-tenant court that strengthened landlord responsibilities before evictions could even be filed. Over the past two years, we’ve shown that when PEPP lawyers are involved, 95 percent of cases have favorable outcomes that avoid eviction judgments,” said Gym.  


Right to Counsel will continually scale up the amount of money provided to PEPP, until the project can hire and train enough lawyers to cover every low-income tenant facing eviction in Philadelphia. The project is currently funded at $2.1 million.


With an investment of $5 million, the City will recover $63 million annually, according to a report commissioned by the Philadelphia BAR Association and authored by Stout. 


When Gym came into office, her whole team had just read Matt Desmond’s “Evicted,” and she recalls feeling a sense of urgency but also just overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. Since coming into office, Gym has been constantly inspired by the leadership shown at the municipal level by local elected officials around the country who have really taken on the eviction crisis at home. 


“We can’t carry this alone, which means that in 2020 and beyond when we’ve got a presidential race and a national dialogue about this country’s future, we have to make housing a central part of that narrative. 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 concluded. “So, if we don’t talk about it, who will?”