As a journalist I am a believer in the power of stories. Stories define our humanity. They connect us, inspire and motivate us to action.
In these unprecedented times, powerful stories are being shared in Philadelphia City Council’s Housing Committee’s virtual hearing on The Emergency Housing Protection Act- a critical set of bills to protect tenants in the city of Philadelphia facing a looming avalanche of evictions.
These hearings are scheduled for tomorrow Friday, June 5th. And if last week’s hearings are any indication, the narratives of our fellow citizens cry out for action.
At the May 29th hearing, the Bill’s sponsor Councilmember Kendra Brooks set the tone when she said 70 percent of all people facing evictions are women of color, using herself as an example. 6 years ago she said she lost her job and lost her home. “ I know what it feels like to be on the brink of homelessness and what it is like to choose between feeding your family or paying your rent “.
SeniorLAW Center client Victoria Lambert, a proud 63 year old single mother with a 19 year old son spoke of a “deficit of hope” that has befallen her family and others like her. Before the pandemic she said both she and her son worked to pay the rent on their studio apartment. Then came Covid-19 and their jobs were gone. They continued to pay a portion of their rent, yet the landlord has already told them when the moratorium lifts- he will start eviction proceedings. Like Councilmember Brooks, Mrs Lambert says she knows homelessness and at her age-in a pandemic- with a son to take care of, she can not be homeless again.
Mrs. Lambert’s attorney is SeniorLAW Center Director of Tenant Right’s Jacob Speidel. He fears a wave of evictions will lead tenants further downward into poverty, further destabilize Philadelphia’s economy and its ability to recover from this public health crisis. In just a six week period during the crisis he and other attorneys in the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project have worked with hundreds of clients facing eviction and housing issues.
At the city council hearing when his client Jacqueline Leck couldn’t access the zoom conference call Speidel fell back on “old fashion” phone technology, using his cell phone to call Mrs. Leck so she could share her story with those on the zoom call.
Leck who has COPD and is in her 60s, told council members that before Covid-19 she had negotiated an agreement in court that among other conditions allowed her to stay in her property for a period of time. After Covid-19, her landlord’s realtor refused to take the rent money and wanted her evicted. She and her husband have been unable to find other housing and now at their age face being out on the street.
To address these issues Councilmembers Helen Gym, Jamie Gauthier and Kendra Brooks have created legislation, the Emergency Housing Protection a series of six bills written to work in concert and provides for
– a moratorium on evictions giving Philadelphians time to get back on their feet,
– the creation of an Eviction Diversion Program based on the city’s successful mortgage foreclosure program and allows landlords and tenants an opportunity to resolve their disputes,
– stabilizing rent allowing certainty in the sea of uncertainty that we all have faced over these months,
– a waiver of late fees,
– Holding landlords financially accountable for illegal lockouts,
– payment agreements which permit a person to realistically pay off their back rent.
A critical component of the Act is its recognition that both the interests of tenants and landlords deserve protection.
Landlords like Bethany Rosen who said that as a small business landlord she supported the Act because it allows her to negotiate with tenants to keep a roof over their heads which benefits everyone. And she acknowledged the advantage she holds as a homeowner with options not available to renters. Having savings in place allowed her to weather this crisis in a way that others cannot, she said.
Landlord Sam Chenkin told of the need to prioritize and protect renters. She put her mortgage in forbearance ( measures not available to renters) and has been foregoing rent from her tenants.
These virtual hearings continue tomorrow with more testimony from our client Victoria Lambert , attorney Jacob Speidel and others.
Sharing these stories is important. Housing is fundamental. Eviction threatens to put thousands of our fellow citizens out on the street due to no fault of their own. And at a time when we are confronting the isssue of race in this country it can not be ignored that evictions are a serious racial justice issue in the city of Philadelphia. Households headed by black women with children are the ones most affected by forced moves, only exacerbating racial disparity.
Read Ms. Lambert’s full testimony here.
Written by: Renee Chenault Fattah, Director of Pro Bono Action for Community Impact in PA