An amendment extending the requirement that landlords use the Eviction Diversion Program before resorting to eviction was advanced unanimously out of City Council's Housing Committee, introduced by Councilmember Helen Gym. The program uses professional housing counselors and mediators to help renters and landlords reach agreements that benefit both parties while avoiding eviction.
The program remains a crucial resource for hundreds of vulnerable Philadelphians who would otherwise face eviction proceedings. The mandate to use the Eviction Diversion Program before filing for eviction is currently set to expire at the end of the year, but would be extended through March 31, 2021. A full vote is expected in City Council on December 10.
"In a time of grave uncertainty, City Council, housing advocates, and our agencies partnered together to create a historic program to meet this moment, and I am proud that this amendment passed out of committee unanimously as COVID cases continue to rise," said City Councilmember Helen Gym. "The program has shown overwhelming success, proving that there are alternatives to the thousands of evictions we see in court every single year. I look forward to working with my Council colleagues to find a permanent home for the program in our Municipal Courts."
Since the program began in September, hundreds of renters and their families have avoided eviction by using mediation to reach an agreement with their landlord. Another 149 cases are scheduled for mediation in the coming weeks, showing ongoing demand for the program. At today's hearing, landlords and tenants testified that the program helps keep families housed and helps ensure steady payments for landlords.
"Since the start of the pandemic we've been focused on keeping people in their homes with programs like rental assistance, which is helping more than 10,000 tenants avoid eviction," said Mayor Jim Kenney. "We're pleased to be partners in this process and look forward to strengthening a program that benefits both tenants and landlords."
"Eviction diversion is a vital component of the Emergency Housing Protection Act, and I am pleased that the bill to extend this program passed out of committee with a favorable recommendation today," said Councilmember Jamie Gauthier. "With COVID-19 infection rates growing at an alarming speed, we need to use every tool at our disposal to ensure all Philadelphians can stay safe and healthy at home. I am grateful to Councilmember Gym for shepherding this effort, and to my colleagues on the Housing Committee for their support and consideration of our city's most vulnerable renters."
A renter and landlord urged Council to pass the amendment, after explaining how they reached agreements through mediation.
"Since the landlord-tenant court is closed, my experience has been that mediation offers a practical path to resolve disputes, mainly around non-payment of rent and utilities, yet also establishes communication and trust," said Moshe Attas, a landlord and property manager in North Philadelphia. "The mediation process is creating a pleasant environment that bridges the gaps of anger and resentment. This is especially important at the time of this pandemic."
"It often feels the scale leans more toward the owner than the tenant. Mediation helped to bring about a fair agreement, repairs being made and rent being paid," said Diane Buchanan, a renter who reached an agreement with her landlord through mediation. "I am asking you to support this opportunity for mediation. I am asking you to support tenants like me and give us an opportunity to stay in our housing and avoid eviction."
Retired judges testified about their experiences successfully mediating disputes through the program, and urged Council to pass the amendment.
"I have mediated many of these cases, helping most come to an agreeable resolution," said Judge Annette Rizzo, who helped found Philadelphia's Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program. "These services provide tremendous help to all parties, but without the requirement that landlords participate, many will move to immediately evict a tenant if they have not previously participated in the Eviction Diversion Program. We have seen this with the Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program, and we have also seen the great success that comes from bringing parties to the table before the adversarial court process."
"For tenants, a displacement through eviction can result in homelessness, job loss and family instability," said Judge Michael Snyder, Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association and a professional mediator in the program. "For landlords, an eviction usually means the loss of several months of rental income plus the costs of proceeding through the courts... A mediation conference can result in agreements between tenants and landlords that provide tenants with a 'clean slate' by helping them avoid displacement and having an eviction on their rental history, while helping to guarantee that landlords are paid back the money they are owed, usually through a payment plan."
"I meet with tenants before mediation to review their goals and their financial capabilities to preserve their housing. I help tenants to apply for rental assistance and other programs," said Abraham Pardo,Director of Housing for the Urban League of Philadelphia, and a housing counselor with the Eviction Diversion Program. "At mediation, we attend and act as advocates for tenants. We make sure the tenant's voice and concerns are heard. Tenants are very relieved to have the opportunity to meet with the landlord and put a face to this process and concerns."