A Philly law currently in place mandates landlords try mediation before immediately evicting a tenant. Now City Council is moving toward extending that requirement through March 2021.
The council's housing committee voted Wednesday to extend the life of the mediation mandate, which is currently set to expire Dec. 31, 2020.
The city's Eviction Diversion Program exists regardless - the expiration date only concerns landlords' obligation to take part, a council spokesperson told NBC10.
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During Wednesday's hearing, advocates of and participants in the program said 126 tenants entered into agreements with their landlords after mediation out of 237 mediations. Some scheduled meetings did not take place due to no-shows from tenants or landlords. Another 181 mediations are still scheduled.
Diane Buchanan, 61, told councilmembers how she fell behind on rent at a place she shared with her daughter, after her daughter lost one of her jobs as a hairdresser during the coronavirus pandemic.
“She went from two jobs to part time, and it made me carry the weight of the bills and the rent,” Buchanan said.
Then she heard about the diversion program through an outreach text message. Mediators promise a hearing within 30 days, and soon she was at a table with her landlord, the mediator and a housing counselor, Abraham Reyes Pardo from the Urban League. Buchanan and her landlord reached a payment agreement and the landlord agreed to fix a broken refrigerator in her unit that hadn't been repaired or replaced for months.
"It gives the landlords their money, and it allows the tenant to show good faith. Like I'm really honorable, I plan on carrying out my promise," Buchanan said. "We don't have to go through all the legalities and at least everybody knows we tried to work it out before we got to court."
Reyes Pardo was there to research and factcheck as Buchanan talked with her landlord, he said in the Council meeting.
Though some landlords are quick to talk about money, the mediations give a chance to understand the tenant's situation and the circumstances that caused them to fall behind, Reyes Pardo explained to Council.
"Mediation allows landlords to get to know what causes people to fall behind during the pandemic, and know that it's not intentional, these are situations beyond their control. These are real people, these are real lives, who unfortunately just ended up having trouble."
He also mentioned that the process allows both landlords and tenants to avoid a court system that is backed up with cases and may cause them to feel unsafe due to the pandemic.
"We have for so long thought that eviction - while many people say well, it's a point of last resort, ... we actually don't create other alternatives," Councilmember Helen Gym said. "For a program that is less than two months old, that got built on the fly, I want us to underscore that in a city that used to be the fourth-highest evictor of all major cities in the country...we have shown that there is an alternative, and when that alternative is presented, we can reduce evictions by a significant amount."
Later in the hearing, Council heard from Brianna Westbrooks from the Pennsylvania Apartment Association, which speaks for apartment owners.
She called for efforts to improve the response rate among tenants who did not show to mediation, and hoped for increased access to rental assistance money that would help tenants adhere to their payment plans after a successful mediation.
Former U.S. District Court Judge Annette M. Rizzo, now a mediator for the eviction diversion program, expressed thanks for all the legal staff who are serving as mediators at no cost to the city. Their pro bono work makes the program possible, she explained.
The full council still needs to vote on the extension of the mandate on Dec. 10.