What a lawyer can mean for a tenant in Philly's Landlord-Tenant Court

Pat Loeb
November 26, 2018 - 4:00 am
A recent study by the Philadelphia bar association found that the city's high eviction rate could be reduced if tenants had lawyers in eviction proceedings, just as most landlords do.

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Philadelphia's Landlord-Tenant Court is on the 6th floor of a Center City office building. Each morning and afternoon, a court officer calls a list of several dozen cases. 

But most of the work happens through a side door that leads to a series of rooms where the parties try to work out their disputes.

Eighty percent of the time, the landlord has a lawyer; 93 percent of the time, the tenant doesn't. 

"When your landlord can afford a lawyer and you can't, it's hard," said one tenant, who did not wish to be identified. "If I stepped into that courtroom today without the lawyer, I would have lost the case."

She believes she was spared eviction from her Frankford home because she was represented by the "lawyer of the day," an attorney provided by the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project (PEPP), an effort started earlier this year with $500,000 from the city. 

A recent Bar Association study found that the city could provide lawyers for all tenants for about $3.5 million and avoid $45 million in social services accessed after a disruptive eviction, which often leads to homelessness, job loss and health issues.

"There's a basic power imbalance," said Rachel Garland, a lawyer with Community Legal Services (CLS) which leads the Project. "The landlords for the most part are represented by lawyers so even if a tenant is fairly savvy, you're still having to sit down and negotiate with a lawyer."

In addition to the lawyer of the day, who Garland says can handle about five cases a session, PEPP provides a navigator, a tenant helpline and website, outreach to at risk tenants, and financial counseling. All of these supports are necessary, Garland says, because landlord-tenant court is stressful.

"There's a time pressure, lawyers are trying to work out agreements," says Garland. "So it's not the best time to sit and think through major life decisions."

Garland was in landlord tenant court, last week, representing Roshena, a CLS client who had withheld her rent because of a series of defects that began shortly after she moved in.

"Floods in the basement, holes in the ceiling, cracks in the walls, the roof was messed up, the floor buckled, my daughter fell and busted her lip," said Roshena.

When the landlord sent her an eviction notice, she decided to move rather than fight, but she was afraid the case would keep her from renting elsewhere. 

Garland was able to get it withdrawn.

That satisfied Roshena, though she laments she had to move out of the city to afford the rent. A mother of three, Roshena is a home health aid and also drives for Uber and Lyft to make ends meet.

"I grew up in South Philadelphia, but it's different now because Philadelphia is up and coming," she said. "They're redoing everything and things are more expensive. People from New York and people that can afford that stuff are coming so it's very hard now to find something you can afford. It's kind of devastating not only for me but for families that don't want to live over their means."

Roshena's case illustrates that people have different goals in landlord tenant court. For her, moving was the right solution. 

But the tenant from Frankford wanted to stay. She had also withheld rent because of defects in the house, and came armed with evidence she hoped would prove she had reason to after a furnace explosion.

"I had burns on my face, arms, neck," she said. "I have proof Philadelphia Gas Works was out at my house. I have pictures of my face," she said. 

The lawyer of the day was able to negotiate a settlement.

"The ideal outcome in a landlord tenant case is a win-win," said Garland. "Ideally, for the tenant, you don't want them to have to move. You want them to be able to stay in their home and ideally for the landlord, they get their rent money."