Nateria Morrison had ceiling leaks in three rooms of her one-bedroom West Philadelphia apartment, and then lost electricity to half of the property.
Her landlord didn’t fix any of it despite Morrison’s repeated requests, so in February this year, she started withholding her rent of $650 a month. The landlord responded by trying to evict her but was found in court to be out of compliance with some landlord-tenant laws, allowing Morrison to hold on to five months’ worth of back rent.
Morrison, 46, a custodial assistant with the School District of Philadelphia, was represented by Community Legal Services, a nonprofit that helps low-income people with housing and other issues. Without that legal assistance, she said she might not have won her case, and might still owe the landlord back rent for a deteriorating property.
“Without their help, I would not have known that he was in non-compliance until I showed up in court,” said Morrison, who finally moved in October to an apartment in North Philadelphia.
In Northeast Philadelphia, Jordan Morgan has been renting a house for $700 a month for about the last five years and fell behind this year because the landlord would only accept cash payments made in person, but sometimes didn’t show up to collect the rent.
Morgan, 61, a psychotherapist, said he spent some of the rent money that was not being collected, and ended up owing $1,400, prompting an eviction notice.
He fought it, and started off without a lawyer but then was happy to accept an offer from Community Legal Services to represent him for free.
“They were able to get me an extra four months to stay in the property which allowed me to save my funds to move on elsewhere,” he said. He was due to move out, along with his wife and two grown children, on Nov. 15.
People like Morrison and Morgan are more likely to avoid, delay or at least obtain more favorable terms for eviction if they are represented by an attorney, according to a new study prepared for the Philadelphia Bar Association, released on Nov. 13.
And by providing lawyers for people faced with eviction, the City of Philadelphia could save itself tens of millions of dollars in costs such as emergency housing, medical care and court time that can be avoided if renters have competent legal representation in eviction cases, the study said.
It estimated the City pays at least $45.2 million a year to deal with the costs of eviction for about 4,400 households – an annualized figure based on cases that were unrepresented over five years – who can’t afford to hire a lawyer.
The costs include $26.4 million in shelters, $7.6 million in inpatient hospital costs, $1.1 million in emergency room costs, and $7.7 million to provide mental-health treatment to people who have been evicted, the study said.
The City faces other eviction-related costs that are not easily calculated, such as the education, welfare and juvenile-justice costs associated with homeless children, the negative impact on tenants’ credit scores, and the costs of incarceration.
The report calculated that providing legal representation to low-income tenants facing eviction would cost the City $3.5 million a year but would result in about 14,400 people avoiding what it calls “disruptive displacement” that may result from eviction.
The cost of hiring lawyers would be heavily outweighed by the money the City saves on providing eviction-related services, resulting in a return on investment of $12.74 – meaning that for every dollar spent on eviction-case lawyers, the City would receive a benefit equivalent to at least $12.74 – according to the study.
“This disruption and displacement can require the need for social services annually costing the City of Philadelphia millions of dollars,” said the 52-page report by Stout Risius Ross, a consultant.
A City official said the report hasn’t been reviewed yet because it has only just been published but noted the City already contributes almost $1 million a year to a consortium of five legal-services organizations, led by CLS, that work with the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project, a City program that aims to reduce the number of evictions and provide more resources for tenants in danger of losing their homes.
Through PEPP, tenants can use a hotline to get information about their rights and responsibilities, and access a courtroom navigator, financial counseling, and full legal representation, said Eva Gladstein, the City’s Deputy Managing Director of Health and Human Services.
The project also provides lawyers in court hearings to represent up to five tenants a day if they did not connect with legal services before their court date.
“We believe that these interventions improve housing stability, reducing strains on the City’s homeless system and keeping families healthier,” Gladstein said in a statement.
In Philadelphia and many other cities, there is an eviction “crisis” that’s worsened by rising rents and declining incomes, cutting affordability and forcing some tenants into rent arrears, said the report, titled “Economic Return on Investment of Providing Counsel in Philadelphia Eviction Cases for Low-Income Tenants.”
Nationwide, median rents have risen 9 percent, adjusted for inflation, since 2000, while the median income for renters dropped 11 percent, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. Meanwhile, demand for rental units rose after the 2008-09 housing crash cut the number of homeowners, forcing vacancy rates down and prices up.
“The increased demand for apartments, coupled with an unchanged supply, has resulted in increased rents and has created the current affordable housing crisis,” the report said.
The situation is worse in Philadelphia, which lost 20 percent of its rental units with a monthly gross rent of $750 or less between 2000 and 2014, the study said. That added to the challenges of being the poorest big city in the country, with some 26 percent of the population living below the federal poverty line.
Philly’s eviction rate was 3.48 percent in 2016, about 50 percent higher than the national rate, the study said. The eviction rate is about three times higher in African American neighborhoods than in white areas, it found.
In 2016, there were 22,125 residential eviction cases filed in Philadelphia’s Municipal Court but only the equivalent of 6.5 full-time attorneys available to represent those tenants. Landlords were represented in about 80 percent of cases compared with only 7 percent for tenants.
Even if renters’ lawyers can’t prevent eviction, they can, as in Morgan’s case, at least argue for better terms such as allowing more time to vacate an apartment and find other accommodation, reducing the amount of back-rent owed, or avoiding a formal eviction.
Having a lawyer makes it much less likely that renters will lose their cases by “default” – a court judgment that applies if a renter or his/her attorney doesn’t answer “present” at the call of his or her name during a reading of a case list.
Additionally, the study claims without representation, tenants face disruption and displacement in 78 percent of cases. However, with representation, they can avoid the disruption 95 percent of the time.
Philadelphia could catch up with other cities by providing lawyers to tenants in eviction cases, the report said. It cited New York City, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and Denver as among those that provide some level of representation.
EVICTION, BY THE NUMBERS
According to a recent study, the city pays out over $45 million a year to deal with the cost of rental evictions. It argues that offering legal assistance to tenants dealing with eviction could drastically curb costs. Here’s a look at the numbers to date.
The cost the city spends to deal with cost of evicted Philadelphians who need assistance.
The number of households annually that rely on city funds for assistance after eviction. This figure is largely based on cases that were unrepresented over the last five years.
The figure the city spends toward sheltering evicted residents.
Provisions for mental health treatment for people who have related stress and actual notions of suicide as a result of an eviction.
Amount spent on inpatient hospital costs.
Amount spent on emergency room costs.
– Source: Stout Risius Ross report
This article is part of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among 21 news organizations, focused on Philadelphia's push towards economic justice. Read more of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.