Members of Council with the Right to Council Bill decree.

WEEKLY REPORT: COUNCIL APPROVES BILL PROVIDING LAWYERS FOR LOW INCOME RENTERS, “RED FLAG” GUN SAFETY LEGISLATION

In Allan Domb, Council News, Curtis Jones, Jr., Darrell L. Clarke, Helen Gym, Jannie Blackwell, Kenyatta Johnson, Maria D. Quiñones-Sánchez, News by PHL Council

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A Right to Counsel for Tenants Facing Eviction

Seeking to level the playing field for tenants facing eviction, City Council on Thursday passed a right to counsel bill that its proponents say will not only help tenants avoid eviction, it might help keep them out of poverty as well.

Council approved Bill 190386, introduced by Councilmember Helen Gym (At Large). The bill will provide city-subsidized lawyers for all low-income renters facing eviction.

“When a city with the highest rate of poverty of all major U.S. cities establishes this bold right for our most vulnerable renters, we are leading the country towards justice for all,” said Councilmember Gym.

“Evictions in our city disproportionately target black women, many of them single heads of household, and make children twice as likely to end up in foster care. Today, we showed the world that cities can put a stop to this eviction crisis and build a better justice system at the same time.”

Landlords file over 20,000 evictions in Philadelphia each year – the fourth highest total in the nation. Without a lawyer, families are displaced from their homes in 78 percent of evictions in Philadelphia, but families with lawyers are displaced just 5 percent of the time, according to a 2018 report commissioned by the Philadelphia Bar Association.

For every $1 allocated towards legal representation, the City will save an estimated $13 in city services, according to Community Legal Services. The city’s initial investment in the right-to-counsel program is $5 million.

Gym’s bill is part of a growing national movement and follows the passage of similar laws in New York, San Francisco, Newark, and Cleveland. The bill was co-sponsored by Council President Darrell Clarke (5th District), Councilmembers William Greenlee (At-Large), Bobby Henon (6th District), Kenyatta Johnson (2nd District), Curtis Jones, Jr. (4th District), and Cherelle Parker (9th District).

 

“Red Flag” Bill on Guns Passes Council

In recent weeks, the city’s conscience has been stunned as a 2-year-old girl was fatally shot in her family home, an 11-month-old boy was shot and critically wounded while his father was allegedly involved in a drug deal, and a 10-year-old boy was shot in the head as he walked home from school.

These are just some of the worst incidents of gun violence scarring Philadelphia.  Yesterday, City Council approved a “red flag” law introduced by Councilmember Jones and designed to make it easier for citizens to flag individuals deemed a danger to themselves or others and request court approval to remove guns from their possession.

Bill 180553, sponsored by Jones and Councilmember Johnson, is intended to allow citizens to seek help more swiftly and easily if they sense a neighborhood situation brewing that might get out of control and involve guns.

“Our babies deserve this kind of protection,” Jones said during impassioned remarks on the floor after the bill was approved, 16-0. Jones cited data indicating that 28 children aged 10 or younger have been shot in Philadelphia since 2018.

During his remarks, Jones also noted that Council’s Appropriations Committee held hearings and moved budget transfer ordinances earlier this week involving multiple aspects of city spending – including $5 million allocated for added gun violence prevention strategies by Philadelphia police, the Kenney administration, and other city agencies, with Council’s support. “Let me be clear, however,” Jones said. “We consider $5 million to be a floor, not a ceiling.”

The budget transfer ordinances, encompassing a wide array of city spending and initiatives, will be considered for final passage in Council next week.

Wage Tax Relief May be Coming for Lower-Income Philadelphians

Councilmember Allan Domb’s legislation, Bill 190746, to provide a Wage Tax Credit for up to 51,000 qualifying Philadelphians, was reported favorably out of the Finance Committee and received first-reading approval in Council today.

In a committee hearing earlier this week, Councilmember Domb said the average refund for qualifying city residents and nonresidents would be $41 per month.

The Kenney administration testified at the hearing that while it supported the policy goal of helping lower-income citizens ease their local tax burden, it did not support the bill at this time, and preferred to discuss and incorporate the policy goals during the budget process in the spring. Council members disagreed.

“We should not be taxing people who cannot put food on the table,” Domb said this week. “It’s just wrong. And whatever we can do to correct that and fix it, we need to do.”

Council President Clarke indicated his support for Domb’s bill, calling it “long overdue,” and tied the measure to Council’s broader efforts to alleviate poverty in Philadelphia by lifting 100,000 people out of poverty by 2024.

The wage tax credit legislation will be up for final approval next week.

Mayor Supports Councilmember, Calls for Eliminating All Library Overdue Book Fines

In a likely policy win for a Councilmember, Mayor Jim Kenney has publicly called on the Free Library of Philadelphia to repeal its policy of levying fines on library users for overdue books.

Just one month after Councilmember Cherelle Parker offered a resolution to hold hearings in Council on the topic of overdue library book fines, and suggested the city rethink its policy and end the practice, Mayor Kenney announced his call to end the book fine practice today.

The policy can only be rescinded by vote of the Library’s Board of Trustees, which meets next month.

“I respectfully ask the Board of Trustees of the Free Library of Philadelphia to vote in support of completely eliminating overdue fines for unreturned books and materials and to forgive outstanding overdue fines,” Mayor Kenney said in a statement. “The punitive practice of late fines for overdue books is a century-old practice that not only creates a barrier to use, it also frequently prevents patrons from returning materials that belong to the Library and should be used and enjoyed by more Philadelphians. This policy is counterintuitive to advancing our city’s broader educational and literacy goals, and the time has come for it to end.”

Kenney credited Councilmember Parker in his statement for raising public attention to the issue in her resolution calling for hearings on the practice. In remarks on the Council floor later yesterday, Parker commended the mayor for his action and leadership – but indicated the hearing on November 20th was still on.

“The library’s trustees meet in December,” Parker said, “so we will go forward with our hearing on November 20th, take testimony and assemble a record for why it’s important to do away with these overdue book fines once and for all.” Parker also credited Chicago and its new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, for initiating the policy there and giving her the idea to propose a similar reform in Philadelphia.

Lastly, Parker noted the revenues from overdue book and material fines represents less than 1 percent of the library’s annual budget.

Inside the Rail …

Sharmain Matlock-Turner, President and CEO of the Urban Affairs Coalition, is well known in City Hall and the corridors of City Council. It’s also difficult to take Sharmain, a meticulous preparer for any presentation, by surprise. But that’s exactly what happened Thursday when Councilmember Maria Quiñones Sánchez and Councilmember Parker surprised her in the chamber with a resolution honoring her career at UAC – on her birthday.  It was a gracious gesture of friendship amid a long day of local government.

On Monday, Nov. 18, Council’s Special Committee on Poverty Reduction and Prevention will hold its first neighborhood hearing, beginning at 4 pm at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, 642 N. Broad Street. The public is invited to attend. Two additional neighborhood hearings are scheduled before the end of the year.

On Tuesday, Nov. 19, Council’s Committee of the Whole will host a hearing with the School District of Philadelphia and Mayor Kenney. Superintendent of Schools Dr. William Hite, School Board President Joyce Wilkerson and Mayor Kenney will attend, along with other officials, to brief Council on the district’s progress since returning to local control. The hearing will run from 2 p.m. – 5 p.m. in Council chambers on the 4th floor at City Hall.

On Thursday, Nov. 21, the next Stated Meeting of City Council will take place beginning at 10 a.m. in Council chambers on the 4th floor at City Hall.

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