Philadelphia, PA

Proposed laws will help make housing safer, healthier and more accessible

The Homepage, published by Hazelwood Initiative

By Juliet Martinez

State Sen. Nikil Saval (D, Philadelphia) proposed two new laws and one amendment to an existing law in 2021. All three focus on housing access for renters, and home repairs for low-income households. 

The Fair Chance Housing Act would amend the 1955 Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. This act outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, ancestry, age or national origin. The amendment would add criminal history to this list. 

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Recently incarcerated people face an increased risk of housing insecurity and homelessness.Graphic by Juliet Martinez

The 1955 act protects Pennsylvanians from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation. But landlords often reject rental applications of individuals with a criminal record.  

Sen. Saval proposed blocking landlords from running criminal background checks on prospective tenants. This would make it easier for ex-convicts to find housing and make a new start. 

The Sentencing Project data says as many as one in three adults in the United States has a criminal record. Black men are six times more likely to be arrested than white men. Hispanic or Latino men are two and a half times more likely to be arrested than white men. The project's website says finding housing and employment can be near impossible for those with a criminal history. 

Another barrier renters face is a past eviction filing. Landlords routinely screen applicants for eviction filings and deny leases to applicants who have one on their record. But filings do not always lead to eviction. This means that even if a renter was not evicted, the filing alone makes it harder for them to find housing.  

The Fair Records for Renters bill would seal eviction filing records unless and until the landlord wins the case. EvictionLab.org data shows that in 2016 fully two thirds of Pennsylvania eviction filings did not end in eviction. But even without an eviction, the filing itself stained the tenant's record. This law would make the records of litigation sealed to the public while the case is active. If the tenant is evicted, the records would become available to the public.   

But most eviction filings do not end like that. The landlord may withdraw the complaint. The judge may rule for the tenant. Sometimes the two parties reach a settlement. In these cases, no record will remain to endanger the future housing prospects of the renter.  

A third housing-related bill addresses home repairs for low-income renters and homeowners. Sen. Saval proposes creating a comprehensive home repair program for low-income households. This would enable people to stay in homes they can afford, reduce utility bills and stabilize communities. 

Sen. Saval stated that 280,000 homes in Pennsylvania need significant repairs. Repairs to structural problems such as leaking roofs or windows are costly. Fixing systemic issues like exposed wiring, plumbing problems or lack of heat can also be expensive. Households that can't keep up with repairs and maintenance may lose their housing. This harms families and can destabilize a neighborhood. Homeowners who lose their home lose the chance to pass their largest asset to their children.  

Local home repair programs have produced unexpected rewards for low-income communities. The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study in July showing how this works. In Philadelphia neighborhoods where home repair grants helped fix up 13,600 houses, crime dropped by almost 22%. Researchers said this came from fixing internal and structural problems, not their appearance. And it was a long-lasting effect that continued more than 10 years after the study ended.  

Victor J. Reina is associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author of the study. He told Bloomberg CityLab  these repairs relieved people’s fears of their roof collapsing on them or their home being condemned. “It's protecting people from inside their house,” he said.   

Another part of the bill would support people in workforce development programs. This would help train tradespeople to do the repairs. Workforce development programs also help people overcome barriers to employment.

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The Homepage is a print newspaper delivered monthly to households in Greater Hazelwood, Glen Hazel, Greenfield, Hays, New Homestead, Lincoln Place and The Run. Hazelwood Initiative, Inc., a community-based nonprofit, publishes The Homepage through a grant from the City of Pittsburgh and advertising revenue from local businesses and organizations. The mission of Hazelwood Initiative, as a community-based development corporation, is to build a stronger Hazelwood through inclusive community development. Sonya Tilghman, Executive Director of Hazelwood Initiative, Inc. (she/her) Juliet Martinez, Managing Editor of The Homepage (they/them) Sarah Kanar, Layout and Design of The Homepage(she/her)

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