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November 25, 2020

Philly poised to extend eviction diversion program due to ongoing pandemic

Housing COVID-19
philly_rent_homes.original.jpg Thom Carroll/For PhillyVoice

The Philadelphia City Council's Housing Committee unanimously approved an amendment which pushes for mediation between tenants and landlords, avoiding eviction when possible.

Philadelphia City Council's Housing Committee unanimously approved an amendment on Wednesday morning that would extend the Eviction Diversion Program into 2021.

This bill mandates mediation take place between tenants and landlords to avoid evictions, keep renters in housing and ensure landlords get paid, according to a press release. 

Bill 200616 updated a Philadelphia code to require landlords to utilize mediation services through the Eviction Diversion Program before attempting to evict a tenant from their property due to COVID-19. This amendment proposes pushing the expiration date back from December 2020 to March 2021 to protect more renters from losing their homes as the COVID-19 pandemic surges.  

"This bill, 200616, seeks to extend the diversion program for a period of time while we negotiate a transition of the program to the courts, ensuring that this crucial resource will continue to be available to vulnerable Philadelphians in need," Councilmember Helen Gym said. "It matches tenants and landlords with trained housing counselors and mediators to seek mutually beneficial alternatives to evictions."

Diane Buchanon, a tenant in Philadelphia, spoke to the committee about her experience in the program earlier this year. 

She said she shares a home with her daughter who recently lost her job as a hairdresser due to COVID-19, meaning Buchanon was suddenly solely responsible for both the bills and the rent. Then, just as her financial responsibility increased, the refrigerator broke. 

Buchanon described that her landlord was slow to help her, and as she started to look for other places she could live, she heard about the eviction diversion program. 

"I was really surprised because I didn't think it was real," she said. "I really appreciated the order of the mediation. Having the mediator there, monitoring when things got a little hot ... I felt like I was being heard, I felt like somebody was listening to me, nobody was dismissing what I was saying."

Buchanon said she and her landlord reached a deal — he provided a new refrigerator, and she paid her rent.

Next the amendment gets voted on by City Council as a whole, which is scheduled to take place Dec. 10.

So far, the program has facilitated 227 mediations in the city, 58% of which reached agreements and avoided eviction. Anne Fadullon, the Director of the Department of Planning and Development, said 20% of tenants didn't show up to their mediation. 

"As we're able to work through this, we hope to be able to increase that participation rate," Fadullon said. "We do believe it's important to have as many tools as we can in the toolbox to assist landlords and tenants and hopefully avoid eviction because we know now more than ever, it's so important for people's health and wellbeing to be able to stay in their homes."

Renters, a housing mediator, a landlord and the Philadelphia BAR Association testified to the committee in support of the amendment, which was introduced by Gym.

Gym said the initial bill was created under the assumption that last spring would be the height of the pandemic, which we now know is not the case. Nationwide, the latest coronavirus surge has surpassed spring's numbers, meaning the context of the bill has changed.

A city-wide eviction moratorium was put in place by the Philadelphia Housing Authority and extended to March 2021, though it only applies to Philadelphia Housing Authority properties.