Hearing Health and Eviction in Philadelphia

03/24/2017 03:20 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2017

When academics decide to study policy issues and social phenomena, presumably they hope to have an impact. It’s hard to believe that Matthew Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, imagined that his book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, would have the roaring impact that it has. Through a combination of compelling storytelling, data, and legal and procedural analysis Evicted sheds light on the eviction crisis in Milwaukee. Now, city after city have starting to talk about eviction. First Portland, Oregon, then Boston, and now, the wave has come to Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia City Council held a hearing on Monday, March 20, about evictions in Philadelphia, their impact on wellbeing and health, and one possible solution: the right to counsel in housing court.

In the United States, every defendant in a criminal case has a right for legal representation, a right-to-counsel. Housing matters, such as eviction are handled through civil courts. As such, as an evicted tenant the right to counsel does not extend to you and the only way to have a lawyer is to pay for one. Both New York City, and Washington, D.C., have taken steps to extend the right-to-counsel to housing cases.

The City Council heard testimony because of a resolution introduced by Councilwoman Helen Gym and Councilwoman Quiñones Sánchez. The resolution authorized the Committee on License and Inspections and the Committee on Public Health and Human Services to “conduct hearing concerning the impact of eviction and substandard housing on health and wellbeing of low-income renters, and examining solutions… including the right to counsel.” Desmond, who wasn’t at the hearing, submitted a written testimony with a clear message: “eviction creates devastating consequences for families, consequences that are not only caused by poverty, but also lock families more firmly and deeply into poverty.”

Among others, the Council heard from William Church, a 65 year-old veteran with anxiety and COPD who testified that he “swept snow and ice from [his] bedroom.” His inhumane living conditions impacted his health. Church decided to stop paying rent until the landlord fixed his unit, and in response his landlord decided to evict him. Church didn’t want to move because he said he liked his neighborhood and its proximity to the VA hospital where he received medication.

Between 2010 and 2015, each year, 1-in-14 renters in Philadelphia were subject to a court-recorded eviction, according to a study by the Reinvestment Fund that mapped evictions in Philadelphia during that time period. Low income communities and communities of color are impacted the most, and poor neighborhoods and/or predominantly black neighborhoods have eviction rates that are three times higher than high income and/or predominantly white neighborhoods. Based on these numbers alone, we think it’s safe to say that Philadelphia is in the midst of an eviction crisis

Risk of hospitalization, missed school, elevated blood lead levels, and asthma are all health concerns that increase in situations where housing may be unstable, according to Dr. Dan Taylor, a pediatrician at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia. This situation is not rare. An emergency room study found that 40 percent of those visiting the ER were housing insecure.

Efficiently improving these health issues should be about addressing the root cause, he explained.

“If someone encounters 99 people out of 100 with diarrhea, and they all drank out from the same well, one can treat each patient with antibiotics over and over again, or one can go to the well and figure out what is in it that caused this illness and stop it,” Dr. Taylor said.

How do we fix the well? Some suggest the right-to-counsel. Our team at the Temple’s Center for Public Health Law research would argue that legal solutions that are evidence based are worth considering.

“Tenants with attorneys are far less likely to be evicted,” testified Rasheedah Phillips, managing attorney of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.

“When most people think about the key individuals responsible for keeping children healthy, they think of doctors and other healthcare providers. However, I see every day the limitation of my profession,” said Dr. Taylor during the hearing. The movement for the right to legal counsel in essence makes health care professionals out of lawyers.

While 81 percent of landlords arrive at housing court equipped with a lawyer, only 8 percent of tenants are represented. Although there were approximately 24,000 eviction actions filed in Philadelphia last year, “there are only the equivalent of six and a half full time legal aid attorneys in Philadelphia to provide full legal representation to tenants,” according to Phillips.

A cost benefit analysis of New York City’s new program found that right to counsel in NYC will cost the city about $200 million a year. However, the city will gain back $320 million yearly by saving on other services, like homeless shelters. An economic impact study on legal services in Pennsylvania found that for each dollar spent in legal aid, there is a saving of $11 in other services. “Legal aid is an effective tool to fight eviction and reduce homelessness in Philadelphia and it is cost effective,” Phillips concluded.

Many Philadelphians, like William Church, live in conditions that are unfathomable to most Americans. For the most part, the housing standards we do have are adequate, the problem is that we don’t put the adequate resources to enforcing them.

“Of the approximately 260,000 units that are required to be licensed, about 208,000 are – 80 percent of the total,” testified Rebecca Swanson, the Director of Planning in the Department of Licenses and Inspections. There are 50,000 rental units in the city where the conditions are unknown. Units inspected by the city are inspected following complaints, and many tenants fear retaliatory eviction and don’t complain.

There is an ongoing fear that actually enforcing housing code could lead to more evictions, or rent increases caused by landlords leaving the market. This is a decades-long debate so far not founded in empirical evidence. Cleveland is starting a universal rental unit program this year, and hopefully we can all learn more about the effects of housing code enforcement on the housing market.

Matthew Desmond put evictions on the map. The Reinvestment mapped the scope of formal evictions in Philadelphia. The next step is to find creative ways to count informal evictions and then find a way to improve the issue here and elsewhere.

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