In early February, a piece of paper slipped through the mail slot in Ivy Handy’s door. She owed her landlord $2,184.75, it said, and if she didn’t pay, she would have to leave.
“It broke me,” Ms Handy said. She knew what it could mean. When she was 19, she and her siblings were forced out of their home and into a homeless shelter for nine months. The thought of going through that again at the age of 53 filled her with dread.
Evictions are served to a getting up number of people in the United States now that moratoriums that protected renters like Ms. Handy early in the pandemic have ended and billions of federal dollars in rental assistance have stopped flowing.
But Philadelphia, where Ms. Handy lives, has kept one key protection program from the lockdown era — at least for now. Under this program, if a tenant owes less than $3,000 in back rent, landlords must attempt mediation in good faith before eviction. If after 30 days the two sides cannot come to an agreement or the tenant has not appeared for mediation, the landlord can go to court to force the eviction. The result appears to be a boon for both parties: Tenants stay in their homes, while landlords get paid.
“It’s one of the best-designed diversion programs in the country,” said Carl Gershenson of The Eviction Lab at Princeton University. In others cities, eviction files reach or exceed pre-pandemic averages, according to his organization. Even places that have adopted other eviction interventions have recently exceeded those averages. But Philadelphiawhich is the United States poorest large city, consistently saw fewer than the 20,000 files it typically had in the years before the pandemic.
Poor tenants tend to spend most of their income on rent, so a medical bill, job loss or unexpected car repairs can lead to a missed payment. An eviction record can scare would-be landlords, so people are often forced to find temporary shelter and may even end up. homeless. Philadelphia’s program does not lower medical costs, raise wages or lower the high cost of housing. But the distraction does offer those who have the potential to make good on back rent a chance to stay in their homes. By slowing the process and setting up a negotiation mechanism, it has kept more than 4,000 tenants housed since late 2020 and has been praised by the White House as a model for other cities.
The program’s early success, experts said, was greatly aided by the billions of dollars in federal rental assistance money that Philadelphia used to pay arrears. Although landlords complained that the payouts did not always go smoothly, the possibility of rent recovery made forced entertainment more palatable. When the federal money ran out in January, the city offered $30 million to help continue the program until June 2024.
Mrs. Handy knew nothing of it. She only knew what life had taught her: Eviction meant a difficult road ahead.
After leaving the shelter at 19, she worked for years as an apprentice plumber and then as a food packer. Injuries from those jobs — slipped discs, arthritis and fingers that lock — as well as mental health issues put her on disability. She enjoyed stable housing with a housing voucher until early 2017, when she was forced out of a home she had lived in for about a decade. She considered herself lucky when, after months of trying, a landlord took her voucher and even gave away the $1,300 security deposit – a small grace.
Ms. Handy filled the place with the furniture she could pay for on her $941 monthly disability check. The rest she took away, along with ornaments she picked from the trash and spray-painted silver: a flamingo, an elephant, a few stars. The house became a refuge for her daughter and granddaughter.
Last year, a large company bought the house of the nice owner. Then, just a few months later, Ms. Handy was surprised by the eviction notice. After a series of frustrating phone calls, she said, the company told her she owed money in part because she hadn’t paid that initial security deposit. (Neither her landlord nor a lawyer for the company responded to multiple calls and emails.)
Everything was so scary. But the eviction notice listed a number for the diversion program. She steeled herself and called out.
Executions to Expulsions
Philadelphia’s housing boom was built on efforts to deal with a different housing crisis: the financial collapse in 2008 and the wave of foreclosures that followed. then, 60 percent of the city’s residents were homeowners, many with few resources to fall back on. Judge Annette M. Rizzo wanted to give them a fighting chance. Armed with a court order, she forced mortgage lenders into her courtroom to try to solve their problems. “It’s all about the face-to-face,” Judge Rizzo said. “We provided a theater for this important conversation.”
That program successfully prevented more than 8,700 foreclosures in seven years. But it couldn’t stop them all, and as people lost their homes, more became struggling renters. The network of people who worked on foreclosures began to develop more support for tenants, collecting their personal stories to bring to city council meetings and contacting landlords. When the pandemic arrived, those efforts enabled the city to quickly establish a negotiated diversion eviction program.
For Ms. Handy, the result was that, within weeks of placing that phone call, she was in a meeting with a housing counselor, a lawyer for her landlord and a mediator, one of about 65 volunteers who handle about 50 such calls each week. .
The mediations were conducted by telephone, and Ms. Handy participated sitting on her dark gray couch while her two cats lay in wait. When her landlord’s lawyer said she owed more than $2,000, she refused. Her counsel requested that the mediation be paused so that she could confer privately with Ms. Handy.
“How much do you actually owe?” her counselor asked her.
“I owe $1,200, and I just paid $900,” Ms. Handy said. “I live on $41.”
This type of conversation – for Mrs Handy, an opportunity to dispute her employer’s claims before going to court – is unique among the eviction intervention efforts this has increased in recent years. The programs vary from place to place. Some, like one in Maryland, to kick only after the court is involved. Some, like one in Texasoffer money Washington State offers legal representation. And others do mediation voluntary for masters
Mandatory participation was included in Philadelphia’s plan after a pilot program in 2019 struggled to recruit as many as 12 landlords, said Rachel Garland, managing attorney at Community Legal Services, which helped set up and run the program. “It had to be required,” she said.
Many landlords are frustrated by the mandate, which they say creates roadblocks that only kick inevitable evictions down the road.
Brad Toll tried to evict a tenant who owed $17,000 and didn’t seem able or even willing to pay. Mediation went nowhere, he said, and the 30 days it required just added time to what has become a year-long legal battle, during which the tenant damaged the building and intimidated other tenants. The whole ordeal ended up costing about $25,000, Mr. Toll said.
“How many of those people can I have before I go bankrupt?” he said.
There have been some changes to the process. Last February, cases with large debts like the one described by Mr. Toll began to be sent down another route called “direct negotiation.” There is still a 30-day grace period before the court process begins, and tenants are connected with resources, but there is no requirement to meet with a mediator.
Another landlord, Tsilina Aybin, echoed Mr. Toll’s criticisms, but praised the program for providing a door to fruitful conversations. A couple renting from her fell behind on rent while taking care of their newborn. “They were very grateful,” Ms Aybin said. And Mrs. Aybin too. She was glad not to have to drag the tenants to court and work things out amicably. Mediation brought them all together.
Mediation solves many of the easiest evictions; the toughest still end up in a sixth-floor courtroom with low ceilings, gray carpet and dull lights. Conflicts could include an intra-family dispute or a landlord on a fixed income trying to evict a tenant by similar means. Last year, more than 3,800 Philadelphians lost their eviction cases in landlord-tenant court.
Fates are decided as soon as the clerk calls the roll at about 9 am If tenants are not in one of the court’s worn wooden seats when their names are called, they lose their case by default.
Tenants who appear may consult with a a lawyer who stands in the back of the courtroom, one of a growing number that the city now provides at no cost.
But these efforts are not guaranteed to last. The $30 million in rental assistance will eventually run out, and it’s unclear whether the city will be willing to put more money into the fund. should the economy fall. The mandate for host participation in recreation expires next summer. Rachel Garland hopes the process has normalized enough that “this will continue to be part of the landlord-tenant landscape in Philadelphia.”
For Ms. Handy, the uncertainty of the eviction process was overwhelming. She didn’t eat, partly because stress had stolen her appetite, but also because she didn’t have much money left after paying off some of her debt.
In the second mediation session, she offered to pay an extra $150 per month. The landlord’s lawyer was noncommittal. She still didn’t know if she would end up standing before a judge.
Then one day her phone beeped.
“You have completed participation in the program,” it says.
It was done. The landlord agreed to the repayment terms she offered. “I really could live again and be happy,” she said.
The Headway initiative is funded by grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as a fiscal sponsor. The Woodcock Foundation is a funder of the Headway public square. Funders have no control over the selection, focus of stories or the editing process and do not review stories before publication. The Times retains full editorial control of the Headway initiative.