Eviction prevention: Bucks County pro bono attorneys have a role in new community partnership
- Legal Aid of Southeastern PA
A new Bucks County partnership aims to prevent evictions and help tenants. Evictions can have devastating short- and long-term impacts on renters, including homelessness and negative health outcomes, and can severely limit future housing opportunities.
The program launched July 27, 2023 in Lower Makefield Township. The Bucks County Bar Association Pro Bono Committee, Legal Aid of Southeastern PA (LASP), and the Bucks County Opportunity Council (BCOC) are collaborating on the effort, with support from the Bucks County Department of Housing and Community Development. The project is occurring in Magisterial District Court 07-1-11 in Judge Corryn Kronnagel’s courtroom, located in Morrisville.
Pro bono opportunity
Pro bono attorneys are invited to volunteer for the project!
A CLE held May 8 at the BCBA provided background on landlord-tenant law and the roles of each partner. Ron Smolow, Esq. and BCBA Pro Bono Committee co-chair Shari Williams, Esq. moderated the panel, with presenters including Kari Howatt, Housing & Site Supervisor for BCOC; Tesla Thomas, LASP Staff Attorney; Robert Kim, LASP Staff Attorney; and Judge Kronnagel.
Presenters at the May 8, 2023 CLE at the Bucks County Bar Association in Doylestown (from left): Kari Howatt, Tesla Thomas,
Robert Kim, Shari Williams, Judge Corryn Kronnagel, and Ron Smolow.
How it works
Bucks County’s program is modeled partly on the Eviction Prevention and Intervention Coalition (EPIC) in Montgomery County, which started in 2017 in one courtroom and is currently in eight courtrooms, including three in Norristown, two in Pottstown, and one each in Lansdale, Jenkintown and East Norriton.
The new Bucks County program will provide mediation ahead of the eviction hearing, with the Bucks County Opportunity Council coordinating the mediation. If an agreement between landlord and tenant cannot be reached, the program will provide free legal representation to individuals who do not have an attorney and who volunteer to participate. LASP and pro bono attorneys will provide representation.
Howatt explained, “The tenant mediation pro bono project is really coming out of our housing services program,” she explained. Eligibility criteria is based primarily on income. Every week, Sharon Reed at BCOC will receive the names of tenants who are scheduled for an eviction hearing in Judge Kronnagel’s courtroom. Sharon will reach out to tenants individually and also reach out to their landlords. If the landlords are willing to work with the program, BCOC may be able to utilize funding, in combination with tenant contributions, to see if tenant and landlord can avoid going to court altogether.
If an agreement is reached, Kari noted, it would be communicated with the tenant’s LASP or pro bono attorney, as well as the court, and the hearing would not need to take place. If no agreement is reached, or if a landlord is not willing to work with funding that BCOC has available, then the hearing would happen as scheduled. The tenant would have the opportunity to have free legal representation through LASP or a pro bono attorney, though tenants will have a choice as to whether or not they participate.
“The goal of the program is to really work with the landlord and the tenant to try to avoid the eviction altogether,” Howatt said. “The Bucks County Opportunity Council and Sharon specifically are very familiar with a lot of landlords in the county. We have relationships built with them so we feel strongly that we can avoid a lot of evictions.”
Thomas noted that the lease, written or verbal, is a key document. She then provided a primer on landlord-tenant law and case law. Including the PA Landlord and Tenant Act of 1951, Manufactured Home Community Rights Act of 1976, the implied warranty of habitability as defined by Pugh v. Holmes (1979) and Fair v. Negley (1978), the PA Rules of Civil Procedure, Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, and the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968. She also outlined the landlord’s notice to vacate and the complaint.
Kim discussed defenses for renters, including improper notice to quit and violations of the implied warranty of habitability. The Landlord and Tenant Act of 1951 requires that landlords give notice to vacate via mail. Text message or face-to-face notice is not sufficient, he said. “The implied warranty of habitability is a defense for non-payment of rent.
“If you're paying $1,000 in rent for a location and that location doesn't have water services, then the law says that the rent should be zero,” Kim said. “You can't evict for non-payment if the rent should be zero because you are not providing essential services like water, heat and a safe, habitable area. It's not meant to say there's a wood chip on a cabinet so I’m not going to pay any rent...” Infestations of bugs also were discussed. “It's up to the judges to make that final interpretation,” Kim said.
The law allows the landlords to then make repairs and gives them a reasonable amount of time. Reasonable is never defined in statute, but Kim observed that in general, two weeks to a month for non-emergency repairs and much shorter timeframe for emergencies, such as no heat in -20 F weather.
Kim also suggested that pro bono attorneys be aware of Fair Housing Act provisions as a possible defense. “For the most part, no landlord can discriminate on the basis of protected classes. And in the cases of discrimination, they also need to make sure that a disabled person is able to enjoy the premises equally as an able bodied person,” Kim stated. Emotional support animals can be a gray area. “The Fair Housing and Americans with Disabilities Act require reasonable accommodation requests to state that if there's a no-pet policy at the apartment, but somebody has a medical need to have an emotional support animal, then that emotional support animal must be accommodated to a certain extent.” That might mean one emotional support cat, but not 20, is reasonable, he said.
Judge Kronnagel offered some insights on landlord-tenant matters from the bench. “Obviously, I can't advocate for one side or another, but to both sides. I would say from my perspective, the most important thing is our forms and timing.”
Inspiration to address this community need
Williams shared some of the inspiration for the program as BCBA Pro Bono Committee co-chair. The clients who will be served are struggling, often living paycheck to paycheck she noted. “Hopefully we, with this program, can help them and get them to the right resources, so that we have people who are not homeless, as a result of something that we could have done to try and assist with the courts. … We want to provide access to the court with our representation. That's our goal.” Noted Williams, “The intent here is to use all of the resources in the community to try and for everybody to work together.”
Smolow noted the importance of the work. “This is an extraordinary community effort. As a longtime member of the BCBA, I think this is an important expansion of the Bar’s Pro Bono activities,” he said. “Our Committee is very grateful to our volunteer lawyers and BCBA’s leadership, the energy and hard work of LASP & BCOC, and the support of the Bucks County Department of Housing and Community Development.”
Pro bono attorneys who wish to learn more or sign up to volunteer can contact Jennifer Pierce, LASP Pro Bono Director, at email@example.com, or Megan Reinprecht, LASP Community Engagement Unit Staff Attorney and Bucks County Pro Bono Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Pro Bono