How Is That Legal?: Breaking Down Systemic Racism One Law at a Time

It's Not a Natural Disaster

July 13, 2022 Community Legal Services of Philadelphia Season 1 Episode 4
It's Not a Natural Disaster
How Is That Legal?: Breaking Down Systemic Racism One Law at a Time
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How Is That Legal?: Breaking Down Systemic Racism One Law at a Time
It's Not a Natural Disaster
Jul 13, 2022 Season 1 Episode 4
Community Legal Services of Philadelphia

America’s housing system is designed to keep Black women locked out. But eviction records don’t tell the whole story. 

Rasheedah Phillips joins us to discuss the national housing crisis and how systemic racism is embedded in housing policy. She breaks down racial discrimination in rental housing, how eviction records can haunt tenants for life, even if they haven’t actually been evicted, and the opaque nature of tenant screening reports. With extensive local and national expertise, Rasheedah examines how and why Black women most often bear the brunt of the many structural inequities in the rental housing market. To solve this crisis, she calls on advocates to center the leadership of the people who are most impacted and then funnel resources to their efforts. 

Guest: Rasheedah Phillips (@RPhillipsBQF) is Director of Housing at PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity. Rasheedah is also an interdisciplinary afrofuturist artist and cultural producer who has exhibited and performed work globally.

If you enjoy this show and want to help fight poverty and injustice, consider making a donation to Community Legal Services today! You can also follow us on Twitter @CLSphila to stay connected. 

How Is That Legal is a podcast from Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and Rowhome Productions. Jake Nussbaum is our Producer and Editor. Executive Producers are Alex Lewis and John Myers. Special thanks to Caitlin Nagel, Zakya Hall, and Molly Pollak. Music provided by Blue Dot Sessions.

Support the Show.

Show Notes Transcript

America’s housing system is designed to keep Black women locked out. But eviction records don’t tell the whole story. 

Rasheedah Phillips joins us to discuss the national housing crisis and how systemic racism is embedded in housing policy. She breaks down racial discrimination in rental housing, how eviction records can haunt tenants for life, even if they haven’t actually been evicted, and the opaque nature of tenant screening reports. With extensive local and national expertise, Rasheedah examines how and why Black women most often bear the brunt of the many structural inequities in the rental housing market. To solve this crisis, she calls on advocates to center the leadership of the people who are most impacted and then funnel resources to their efforts. 

Guest: Rasheedah Phillips (@RPhillipsBQF) is Director of Housing at PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity. Rasheedah is also an interdisciplinary afrofuturist artist and cultural producer who has exhibited and performed work globally.

If you enjoy this show and want to help fight poverty and injustice, consider making a donation to Community Legal Services today! You can also follow us on Twitter @CLSphila to stay connected. 

How Is That Legal is a podcast from Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and Rowhome Productions. Jake Nussbaum is our Producer and Editor. Executive Producers are Alex Lewis and John Myers. Special thanks to Caitlin Nagel, Zakya Hall, and Molly Pollak. Music provided by Blue Dot Sessions.

Support the Show.

Kee Tobar (00:02):

Hello everyone, and welcome to How Is That Legal, the podcast where we break down examples of systemic racial inequity in the law and policy, and talk to experts whose stories of injustice will make you ask, how in the world is that legal? I'm your host, Kee Tobar. I'm a legal aid attorney, history enthusiast, and chief equity and inclusion officer at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. I'm really excited to welcome Rasheedah Phillips to the show today, where we'll be focusing on the housing crisis in America, and specifically the ways that Black and Brown renters are disproportionately affected by housing policy.

Kee Tobar (00:42):

Rasheedah in addition to being a friend and colleague of mine was a longtime lawyer at Community Legal Services and the managing attorney for our housing policy unit. During that time, she helped lead the fight to pass the Renters' Access Act in Philadelphia. One of the strongest laws in the country to protect renters of color from blanket ban evictions, a law which we'll discuss in depth on the show today.

Kee Tobar (01:04):

Rasheedah now works at PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity, where she serves as director of housing. I should mention Rasheedah is also a brilliant visual and conceptual artist, founder of The Afrofuturist Affair and a member of the Black Quantum Futurism collective. My conversation with Rasheedah covered a lot of ground, including racial discrimination in housing policy nationally and locally in Philadelphia, how the pandemic has worsened housing inequity and the real consequences of eviction record sealing and housing choice vouchers, and how it is Black women who most often bear the brunt of the many structural inequities in the rental housing market. Towards the end of the conversation, we discussed the possible remedies to the situation. So, let's go now to my conversation with the amazing Rasheedah Phillips.

Kee Tobar (01:57):

Hi Rasheedah, I'm very excited to talk to you today, especially when it comes to the intersections of race and gender and housing. For me, it just really doesn't get much better than you. I'm really excited. Can you introduce yourselves?

Rasheedah Phillips (02:14):

Hi everybody. Thank you so much for having me. It's so great to be with you. My name is Rasheedah Phillips. I currently serve as director of housing policy for an organization called PolicyLink, which is a national research and policy organization that serves the hundred million who are at or below the poverty line. But in my former capacity, I was the managing attorney of housing policy at Community Legal Services and worked in the housing unit for most of my legal career.

Kee Tobar (02:45):

Awesome. The purpose of this podcast, just a little bit of context, is to give everyday people whether that's activists, advocates, general everyday people who may feel that the system is discriminatory, but may not have the language or the specific examples to back it up. But before we get to the specifics, so the name of the show is called, How Is That Legal. Is there a specific instance maybe earlier in your life as a young attorney where you have some experience related to housing discrimination that shocked you and made you ask yourself, how is that legal?

Rasheedah Phillips (03:21):

Yeah, absolutely. Going through law school, I was a young, single parent living on my own, not in some ways the traditional law student or what people think about when they think of the traditional law student. And so, yeah, I didn't have a family home to really go to. I didn't have a lot of family in the area. And so had to rent during my time in law school. And one of the things that I encountered was some issues around getting some maintenance done in my unit. I was living in South Philly.

Rasheedah Phillips (04:02):

I was living in an area that had been long disinvested in, where just a lot of the issues that you see entrenched around housing insecurity and community disinvestment was happening in that neighborhood and had a landlord who thought that they could get away with renting me a house. And then as soon as I moved in the water wasn't working, I couldn't take a shower. Just all these things were happening. And so I connected with Community Legal Services to get advice.

Rasheedah Phillips (04:33):

That happened a couple times throughout renting, where I faced different situations where landlords tried to take advantage or just tried to do things that, fortunately I had some awareness at that time of the law and of what was right or what was wrong, but had it been a couple years before when I was just an undergrad or a teenager, right? These things could have led to me being evicted or being in circumstances where my child's health declined or my health declined. So definitely faced a lot of that and only strengthened my resolve to work for an organization that could support people going through these kinds of issues.

Kee Tobar (05:14):

Can you tell us nationally, what are some of the system inequities forcing people out of their homes and sometimes into houselessness?

Rasheedah Phillips (05:23):

A lot of focus has been made over the past couple of years with the pandemic on housing. And so the housing crisis has come into focus, because, right? Everyone had the shelter in place and home was health, right? And so people started to really pay attention to this issue, right? But the housing crisis existed long before the pandemic. The housing system as it existed, hasn't ever worked, particularly for Black people, people of color, low income communities. Well, since the time of slavery and since the time of colonization, right? But into the present, it really hasn't ever worked for people.

Rasheedah Phillips (06:02):

And I'll just focus on renters at the moment, before the pandemic, we saw that almost 50% of renters paid more than 30% of their income on rent. And so that means that half of renters were what we call in the field, housing cost burdened. That means that again, they're paying more than 30% of their income on rent, which means that their rent isn't affordable. When rent is affordable, you are not paying more than 30% of your household income expenses towards that. And so with the pandemic, right? That only exacerbated the issues that we saw with people being able to afford their housing and being cost burdened.

Rasheedah Phillips (06:40):

And so now as many as 5.3 million renter households are estimated to be behind on rent or to have lost income since the pandemic. And so about nearly six million renters who are behind on rent, we have to talk about the race lens, right? Because most of those people, about two thirds of them are people of color. Many of them are Black folks, right? And we're also seeing a stark rise in rents. Right? And so the pandemic, even though started to recognize some of the issues around housing, that didn't stop people from taking advantage of the situation.

Rasheedah Phillips (07:21):

Even though as people were losing jobs, as people were being evicted, pushed out, when protection started to expire, we still saw, right? That rent started to rise. And so in 2021 alone rents increased by at least 10% in 149 metropolitan regions across the nation. And so before 2019, only three Metro areas had experienced that level of rent growth. And so just, again, folks taking advantage of that. So now we see millions of renters collectively owe billions of dollars in back rent. And so the crisis is as bad as it can get. And it only stands to get worse, really.

Rasheedah Phillips (07:59):

Along with cities seeing these increases in rent, we're seeing gentrification happening, right? Some of it, a lot of it again existed before the pandemic. There's a long history around this. But people now returning from the suburbs to the cities, which are driving up rental prices, people who can now work from home, right? Deciding, folks from New York city or folks from places where the cost of living is really high deciding to move to other places, right? Which causes people to be pushed out and displaced from their communities. So we're seeing that.

Rasheedah Phillips (08:35):

And we're seeing, I was on a panel the other day where a state representative from Delaware was saying, right? We're seeing that happen in Delaware. We're seeing people from Philly who are getting higher and higher cost of living move to Delaware, and that's actually pushing out lower income people from their communities. Right? So the ways in which this displacement is continuing to mount and continuing to happen.

Rasheedah Phillips (08:55):

And then we're also just seeing that housing insecurity, right? Again, it leads to these chronic health disparities. It exacerbates hypertension, diabetes, other medical conditions, exacerbates mental health conditions, right? And so these situations are only being made worse by the economic fragility that a lot of folks are experiencing now, have been experiencing, but again, exacerbated in some ways by the pandemic.

Kee Tobar (09:22):

When I heard you say six million people are behind on their rent, that to me was just, even as a legal aid attorney, that to me was just an astounding number. And when I saw that, I was doing some research and it is saying that landlords across the country filed, I wanted to talk about evictions. And I also love the way that you frame evictions as displacement. I think that framing is accurate. And I think that it is something that needs to be echoed as a framework.

Kee Tobar (09:57):

And when I was thinking about evictions and I was researching it, I came across a number that landlords filed 3.7 million eviction cases a year. And in Philadelphia, there were nearly 20,000 eviction cases. And to me that was just astounding. And so now that states have run out of money for rental assistance and tenants are being evicted again, can you talk to us about what's happening now?

Rasheedah Phillips (10:27):

Absolutely. Well, you said it. There was a moment in time, right? Where, again, people started to understand housing is actually a crisis. We have a lot of housing insecurity, right? Because it started to impact them. So people who had never been impacted by housing insecurity, but during the pandemic through job loss, through infections, et cetera, were suddenly impacted by it. Right? And so you saw this national swell for a moment in time of support and an infusion of resources and infusion of tenant protections. But then that stuff slowly started to trickle away, then quickly started to trickle away.

Rasheedah Phillips (11:04):

And for me, it also, the tide started to shift once people understood who was the most vulnerable, right? And it's the same people who were vulnerable prior to COVID-19, which is in particular Black and brown communities. And so now that states are starting to run out of money for rental assistance as you noted, we're starting to see those eviction start to rise, particularly as those protections wane as well.

Rasheedah Phillips (11:27):

And so what we're going to see, right? Is that the same impact that it had before, the same confluence of factors that made Black women in our country the highest evicted group of people before the pandemic, they're going to be the same evicted after the pandemic, right? And at the same time, these are the same groups of people who are most exposed to impacts from COVID-19. Same people who are in the cross hairs, as the country starts to scramble to get back to normal, it's just going to result in more of a status quo for Black women.

Rasheedah Phillips (11:57):

And so just for example, to talk about Philadelphia, a study showed that 49% of eviction filings occurred in majority Black communities during the pandemic, and 78% of eviction filings occurred in communities of color during a pandemic. But wait, before the pandemic, 81% of evictions filings happened in communities of color and 57% of eviction filings happened in Black communities. And so no shift in that, it's getting worse in some ways, it lessened a little bit, right? Because again, we had that moment in time where we had those protections, we had an infusion of rental assistance resources. And so it dropped the eviction significantly.

Rasheedah Phillips (12:36):

But again, as those things start to wane, it's the same people who are right back in cross hairs, who are going to face the highest risk of eviction and also are facing the highest risk to their health, to their life, to their safety.

Kee Tobar (12:49):

So with regard to the fact that Black women are disproportionately affected by evictions regardless of their income, can you tell us why is that? Right? Because I didn't quite understand, regardless of income, how they're disproportionately affected and also how does eviction overlap and conflate with other systems of oppression, particularly for Black women?

Rasheedah Phillips (13:15):

It's all entangled, right? And when we talk about why it is this way, right? We have to talk about the structural issues, the structural and systemic nature of these things and why they have come to be this way. And so just in general, right? I'm not going to take us all the way back, but I'll take us to some of the roots of some of the problems, right? Again, when I talked about that cost burden, right? And earlier I talked about how many Americans are cost burden. Again, I started to get into the fact that there's a particular racial impact when we talk about families who are cost burden.

Rasheedah Phillips (13:47):

So over half of Black and Hispanic renter households nationally are cost burden. And then just generally Black renters are the most likely to be severely cost burden, meaning they're spending more than 50% of their income on their housing expenses. And then other studies have shown that Black households will pay more comparably in their housing costs, even when they have similar median rents as other households, which compounds those disparities in housing cost burdens. Right?

Rasheedah Phillips (14:12):

So again, the same confluence of factors that make us, right? Leave us behind in terms of income. Right? In terms of just what we're able to pay, the fact that out in the field, right? There's a Black tax when you're going to rent, right? There's added costs that get put on, right? You get a different type of lease agreement in some cases than other people do because of the criminality of Blackness, right? There was a study shown that Black people in Pennsylvania, their lease agreements tend to have more restrictions in them than their white counterparts, tend to have rules in them that are based around criminality. Like, you can't have any criminal activity, right? Just based on these stereotypes. Right?

Rasheedah Phillips (14:55):

So when you think about that and what people encounter when they're trying to rent and the cost burdens that are put on them just to exist as themselves, that confluence of factors leads to some of the things that we see in the system. And then just like, again, the odds are stacked against Black women at every turn. It's not just housing, it's the economy itself. It's the legal system that undercuts them before and after eviction. Every system is really just designed to fail Black women when it comes to housing.

Rasheedah Phillips (15:23):

And so, none of this stuff is a coincidence. We often talk about and this framing came about during the pandemic of the eviction tsunami, the eviction cliff or whatever, right? And it's like, no, it's not a natural disaster. This is a policy design. It is designed to be this way. It is designed to leave certain people on the bottom. And so Black women on average are paid 63% of what non-Hispanic white men are paid according to the US census. And so as a result out of four million households headed by Black women, one in four or one million are living below the poverty line.

Rasheedah Phillips (15:55):

And so these grim disparities really create these conditions where Black women are disproportionately more likely to be cost burdened, disproportionately more likely to be paying more of their income towards housing costs. So even if their income is level, they're paying more of that income towards their housing costs. And so that's why, right? Not even accounting for their income, I could be a Black doctor. I could be a Black woman, I could be president. I could be whatever, right? But I am paying more of my income towards my housing costs than my white counterparts.

Rasheedah Phillips (16:25):

And so, in fact, despite seeing some of the lowest wages, right? Black women have some of the highest rates of educational attainment in the country. Right? So that just underscores the complexity of the structural and systemic barriers that prevent us Black women from accessing long term housing security, and just how much we're disenfranchised by the court process and by every system that Black women encounter.

Kee Tobar (16:49):

All right. Well, I was thinking about the 80% or the 78% that you were talking about with regard to Black and brown peoples, I was thinking about then what number of that are LGBTQ+ identified, Black and brown people, what number are disabled people? Right? And so when we think about, who makes up that population, right? I think it was important to explicitly state that, or to look into that at least to get some data surrounding that.

Kee Tobar (17:23):

But right now I want to talk about eviction specifically, because one of the things that I really want for this podcast is for people to be able to leave with information in a very accessible way, but also in a very specific way. And so, can you tell us about why eviction records are a devastating barrier for people who have these filings and particularly for Black women?

Rasheedah Phillips (17:52):

Yeah, absolutely. And I want to thank you for uplifting those intersections because when we talk about who's being evicted, right? I talk about Black women, but you're absolutely right. Disabled folks, right? These are the same people, disabled Black women-

Kee Tobar (18:06):


Rasheedah Phillips (18:06):

... being evicted. Disabled LGBTQ Black folks, transgender folks, right? Are being evicted. These are the same people. We do have to get more data about that and get more specific about that. And it's also youth, right? Which I know is an area you know very well. Right? When we talk about Black women, we're talking about their families as well. Right? We're talking about their children who are also being put out on the streets. So in terms of the eviction record itself, right?

Rasheedah Phillips (18:36):

The reason why the eviction record is so devastating is because most landlords and even folks who are trying to qualify for mortgages are looking at those eviction records to make decisions about whether or not they're going to rent to someone, whether or not they're going to extend credit to someone. And so those eviction records, right? Do not tell the full story. And so typically, right? When someone gets an eviction filed against them, regardless of the outcome of that case, that eviction file link is open to public record.

Rasheedah Phillips (19:04):

And so what's happening is that, the big data companies are getting that data and then utilizing it to create what's called tenant screening reports, which landlords then utilize to screen tenants to see if they're worthy of being rented to. And so what ends up happening and why there's so many disparities is one, because, again, those eviction records don't tell the full story. In a lot of situations people are going to court, but they're resolving the case or the eviction filing may have been filed before something was worked out and then it gets withdrawn and the tenant maybe never had to show up to court in a first place.

Rasheedah Phillips (19:44):

Or maybe the landlord was using that eviction to retaliate against the tenant or using it as an enforcement mechanism to collect rent or whatever the case may be. But the eviction record doesn't tell the full story. It just codes it into a general code. And then that code triggers a score. And then that score determines whether or not you as a person, right? Is worthy enough to be admitted. And so what happens, right? Is because almost 74% of the eviction filings in Philadelphia alone, but this statistic mirrors the rest of the country, is against Black women. Right?

Rasheedah Phillips (20:19):

So when we look at those eviction records, we cross reference them as I talked about, they're happening in majority Black communities. But then when you put the gender lens on them, right? They are happening to Black women. It is Black women who are in court. Sociologist, Matt Desmond has this quote where he says, "Black and Hispanic men are locked up. Black and Hispanic women are locked out." Right? And so that is absolutely the case. The people who get the filings against them, the majority in court are Black women, Latinx women.

Rasheedah Phillips (20:47):

And so with that, right? You're going to have a situation where there is a disparate impact on those groups of people when eviction records are used as the basis for which you're going to admit them, or evaluate their credit worthiness, or evaluate their worthiness as a tenant. And there's just going to be severe disparities, which there are. And so working at CLS where I represented hundreds of clients who were being evicted, was able in many of the cases to work out an agreement or to resolve it in some way that didn't leave the tenant homeless or that allowed them to stay in their homes, have them routinely come back to us saying, I'm trying to move.

Rasheedah Phillips (21:28):

My circumstances have changed. I've gotten a great job. I want to get out of public housing or I've gotten a great job, I want to move. I cannot. No one's calling me back. All they do is look at this eviction record. Literally this happened seven years ago and that eviction record is still following me, right? 30 years ago. Right? It doesn't stop, because in Pennsylvania and in Philadelphia, there are currently no laws that seal that record. And so even though you have federal laws that says, you can't report these records after seven years, those records are still open to public view and that anybody can still go online, take them, utilize them and add them to a decision.

Rasheedah Phillips (22:05):

And so, again, eviction records create this disparate impact that is very similar to how criminal records operate and function to lock people out of housing opportunities, lock them out of better opportunities in the future. But yet there are not very strong laws right now as a country that protects people in those circumstances. Although people are starting to catch onto this issue, we have a long way to go in terms of solutions.

Kee Tobar (22:28):

When I was doing my research for this conversation, I was looking at an article you did, and you were using an example with a person named Jessica, which was a pseudo name that you were using. And she had just gotten a job with the post office and she was excited to being able to move out of public housing. And she didn't even know that she had these eviction record, because again she'd never actually been to court. And so for me a person who does work in legal aid, but hadn't been working on tenant issues or housing issues, I was just astounded that this could even be a possibility.

Kee Tobar (23:08):

And furthermore we're reading this book called, Philadelphia Divided, and it's about housing and it's mostly based out of the New Deal. But it was so interesting to me how so many of the issues in Philly with regard to housing are so similar to what it was in the 1930s and thinking about how as you're saying, they're being locked out of housing, that just further leads to exploitation, right? People are going to find a way to be housed. That just means that they're going to be housed in even unsafe, more unsafe housing things.

Kee Tobar (23:48):

And so you just constantly see the exploitation and the harm made by bad policy. But I wanted to actually get to specifics when we're talking about eviction filings, what are the rules around filings for landlords? Can they just file for anything?

Rasheedah Phillips (24:09):

In Philadelphia there's three things that a landlord can file for. They can file for, if you are behind on your rent. So they can file for nonpayment of rent. They can file for termination of term, which is when your lease term has ended, unless you have a lease that's under 12 months because organizers in Philly fought for a protection called just cause eviction that applies to leases that are 12 months or less. And so landlords cannot for those kinds of leases, just say, your lease term is over. They have to give a reason.

Rasheedah Phillips (24:38):

And then the last reason why you can file for eviction is called breach of lease. So if your landlord is claiming that you've breached your lease agreement for some reason or another, they can file for that. But again, it's really challenging because in some cases, right? The tenant may not get noticed. The tenant may not know what it is that the landlord is filing for. The tenant may not owe rent. There's all kinds of reasons why a tenant may not be in the wrong. And so again, they get that eviction record because the filing is public information.

Rasheedah Phillips (25:13):

And so even if the case is bogus or, again, they work out the case or they were in the wrong, or whatever the case may have been, but should be able to move on from their lives. Right? That eviction record still exists.

Kee Tobar (25:27):

Just a couple of follow ups to that, that tenant screening report that you talked about, how do you actually access that? Because in this particular article that you'd written, this person didn't have access to, or hadn't had access to that tenant screening report until it became an issue.

Rasheedah Phillips (25:45):

Yeah, exactly. And so it is really challenging in most circumstances for tenants to be able to get access to that tenant screening report. And I'll talk about this in terms of what the law existed in Philadelphia before we were able to get a law passed called the Renters' Access Act. And which is that the only thing that covered this was really federal law. And so federal law says that the landlord upon request, right? Has to give you the information for the tenant screening company that they used. And then it is on you to then reach out to that tenant screening company and request a copy of your tenant screening report.

Rasheedah Phillips (26:19):

And so who knows? Right? Who knows to do that? Who reads the fine print to say, let me ask the person I applied to who rejected me, where to get my tenant screening report. Right? And so it just, we almost never saw tenants who came in with a copy of that tenant screening report. And so if you're a tenant, right? And you don't have that, and you don't know to ask for it, or it's not well advertised that you have that right. You will not know what's in that tenant screening report. It is not something that you yourself can go online and just look up.

Rasheedah Phillips (26:50):

Although you can look up your record, you don't know how that tenant screening report is being evaluated. What scoring that they're doing, right? It is just very opaque. And so most tenants do not get access to that. However, because we knew that and because we saw this trend, saw this as part of the system, one of the things that we advocated for in Philadelphia was a law called the Renters' Access Act that dealt with this. And so under that law that got passed last year, landlords are required to give a copy to tenants of any third party records that they utilized to screen their application, if they're rejecting that tenant.

Rasheedah Phillips (27:27):

And so tenant screening report, if they just went online themselves and looked up their record, they have to give them a copy of that, which allows the tenant to then dispute whether or not that information is accurate, can reach out to that tenant screening company to get the record corrected, et cetera. So it gives tenants a lot more possibilities than they had before in terms of being able to get their records corrected.

Kee Tobar (27:49):

Awesome. I want to pivot to talk about housing vouchers for our moment, because I know in Philly we have a lot of people with vouchers, but it seems like the landlords are choosing to not accept those vouchers. And so we're still having people who are just not able to access housing. Can you talk about how housing discrimination affects renters participating in the housing choice voucher program and for listeners who aren't familiar, can you just discuss what the housing choice voucher program is?

Rasheedah Phillips (28:20):

The housing choice voucher program is a subsidy program. Some people know it as section eight, that's what it was called for a long time, but it's official name is housing choice voucher program. And so the section eight program is a program that is subsidized, is funded by HUD, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is a federal agency. And so HUD funds jurisdictions in most places through the housing authority, the local housing authority, to provide tenants who qualify with vouchers, they're called housing choice vouchers or vouchers.

Rasheedah Phillips (28:56):

And so those vouchers enable tenants to go out on the private market and to rent from a landlord who is participating in the housing choice voucher program. And that landlord gets subsidized by the agency to rent to that person. And so the person who has the voucher only pays up to 30% of their income, right? And so their rent is based on their income. They're not going to pay more than 30% of their income, which is what I talked about earlier, anything over that you're a housing cost burden. And so that voucher is based on their income.

Rasheedah Phillips (29:31):

And so they only pay up to that amount towards their rent and then the rest of the rent is subsidized by the agency and goes directly to the landlord. And so that's generally how the housing choice voucher program works. But the issue with it, right? Is that the reason why so much discrimination is faced, is because landlords can in most places reject tenants who are trying to rent with a voucher. And so in a lot of places that don't have protections, they're typically called source of income protections. Landlords can say, I'm going to reject this tenant. I don't care. I don't take tenants. I don't accept tenants who have vouchers.

Rasheedah Phillips (30:08):

In Philadelphia, we do have a source of income discrimination law, but we still see a ton of voucher discrimination because landlords either don't know about it or choose not to follow it. And also because it's difficult to enforce. It is difficult to tell a private landlord that you have to enroll in this voucher program and you have to accept this subsidy because the voucher program, you'll hear the landlord say, has a whole list of barriers and challenges to enrollment and to remaining in the program.

Rasheedah Phillips (30:37):

And then also there are requirements that come with the program in terms of the kind of lease agreement that you can have. You have to do housing quality inspections, et cetera. And so a landlord's rent can be abated based on not having kept the housing up to quality standards. And just lots of other reasons why landlords say, hey, I don't really want to be a part of this program. And so that is often used as an excuse and reason why it is challenging to enforce source of income discrimination laws, even when they exist. And so you see a lot of voucher discrimination.

Rasheedah Phillips (31:11):

Most of it is really just tied to stereotypes that people have about people who receive subsidy, right? A lot of people tie it into the image of the welfare queen into the image of Black women. Think that Black women are the people who are getting these vouchers and then have stereotypes about voucher housing being on their block, even though you cannot tell, right? Which houses a section eight house or is not, because, right? You're renting from a private landlord. There's not a sign on a door that says section eight household, right?

Rasheedah Phillips (31:42):

But people still have these stereotypes about people who have vouchers and that you can see is fed into policies about how vouchers are used and how they're funded.

Kee Tobar (31:54):

I wanted to talk about the Fair Housing Act really quickly. How should the Fair Housing Act be strengthened or should we create something new altogether?

Rasheedah Phillips (32:02):

I would say for the Fair Housing Act, with all due respect to the people who fought for it, the civil rights activists and Black liberation activists who fought for these protections, right? It's an outdated document. It's over 50 years old. It does not account for some of the updates and ways and technologies and just different ways that people are discriminating, right? That are not outright. And so the jurisprudence around the Fair Housing Act law is not very great, right?

Rasheedah Phillips (32:32):

And so it's really difficult for advocates and for tenants who are impacted by housing discrimination in a lot of situations to utilize that law, although people do great things with it, right? But it deserves to be reconsidered and expanded if possible. The Supreme Court and others are just steadily trying to wear it down and whittle it down until it's a shell of itself. And so, one of the things that needs to happen, and that is on a horizon is that, HUD is meant to release a rule called the affirmatively furthering fair housing rule, which is a rule that is connected to the Fair Housing Act.

Rasheedah Phillips (33:13):

And that says that cities jurisdictions that receive federal funding have an obligation to affirmatively further fair housing. And so that means that they have to do an analysis of the barriers, the impacts of access to fair housing for protected classes, classes that are people who are protected under the Fair Housing Act from discrimination. And so I would say, I don't want to say it's had it to run. Right? But it needs to be expanded. It needs to be strengthened. We do in some ways need something new and something different.

Rasheedah Phillips (33:49):

And so one of the things that I would like to see just to address the issue of eviction records themselves, right? Is that, through the Fair Housing Acts authority, HUD has released in the past guidance around how, for example, criminal records should be treated and utilized in housing decisions. Right? And so in that fair housing guidance from 2016 I want to say, criminal records guidance, right? It talks about the disparate impact of criminal records on Black and brown communities. And so it says, look, if you have these policies that say, I'm not going to accept anybody with a criminal record, you may or may not be discriminating against people because of this disparate impact. You may or may not be engaging in fair housing discrimination.

Rasheedah Phillips (34:33):

So take a look at your policies, make sure you have some policies that are flexible, right? And that guidance also empowered a lot of advocates to push for laws that said, you cannot ask about criminal records on housing applications, or you can only look at certain types of criminal records, et cetera. And so I would love to see parallel guidance for eviction records coming from HUD or coming from whatever agency, it makes sense, that talks about that, that talks about the disparate impact of eviction records on Black and brown communities.

Rasheedah Phillips (35:02):

And gives guidance to landlords and property owners about how they should be using those eviction records and uplifts these kinds of laws and protections that says that you can't have these kinds of policies, these blanket banned policies that says you can't consider anybody who has an eviction record. You really need to be looking at these things more holistically and looking at the applicant more holistically. And so that's what the Renters' Access Act attempts to do, right? On a local level, and would love to see that on a federal level.

Kee Tobar (35:31):

Connected to solutions. So we'd talked about some of the issues, and we know we could spend hours and hours talking about actually a lot of issues with regard to housing and affordable housing in this country. But I want to make sure we don't leave this conversation without talking about those solutions. So you just mentioned one solution that you have out there, or a factor that you have out there. Are there any other solutions that come to mind that you want to just put out there that we need to apply to help everyone progress towards a safe, stable, and affordable housing?

Rasheedah Phillips (36:06):

Yeah, absolutely. Of course there's a ton of things I could say, and I could talk to you for more and more hours about solutions themselves, but I'll just keep it concise to a couple that I think are really relevant to the discussion that we had. One is that we need to really expand and make permanent many of the critical renter protections and anti-displacement measures that were piloted during the pandemic. Again, we had this moment in time where everybody understood the critical nature of housing and how it protects people from COVID-19 and from housing insecurity that creates a matter of life and death for people.

Rasheedah Phillips (36:40):

And so when we're talking about these kinds of rental protections, I'm talking about eviction diversion, right? Funding eviction diversion programs, expanding eviction diversion programs, making sure they're connected to programs like right to counsel, providing a right to counsel for all tenants. In Philadelphia we were able to do that, right? We were able to launch an eviction diversion program. We were able to implement a right to counsel program, and then connected those things to things like rental assistance.

Rasheedah Phillips (37:11):

I believe that impacted how many eviction filings there were had, and how many people got displaced during the pandemic. And we saw a significant drop in eviction filings in Philadelphia because of these critical protections. And now that, again, rental assistance as you talked about is starting to go away, right? We're starting to see those rise. And so we need to make these programs permanent. We need to make rental assistance permanent. The federal government needs to give another infusion. Those rental assistance funds, right?

Rasheedah Phillips (37:38):

They went beyond just supporting people who were facing eviction, but they actually helped to build infrastructure in communities around building more affordable housing or investing in more affordable housing, preserving more affordable housing. So you had people, you had different places leverage these recovery funds to allocate funds to legal representation, to lead remediation, to buying hotels for unhoused folks to live in. So getting creative and making these programs permanent and investing in these programs.

Rasheedah Phillips (38:14):

And then the other couple things that I would say, we really need to look at our exclusionary zoning policies that create circumstances where people can't build affordable housing in their communities. And those things need to be balanced because what we see in places like Philadelphia, is that, where they are piloting some of these inclusionary zoning policies and things like that, developers will take advantage of them. And they will take advantage of those loopholes to come in and build luxury multi-family housing, right? Instead of affordable housing.

Rasheedah Phillips (38:47):

And so we have to not only create the circumstances where these exclusionary zoning policies are taken off the books, we have to strengthen these programs and make sure that the loopholes are lessened or taken out altogether, but also at the same time, right? Make it easier for developers to be able to build these things. Right? Because on the other hand it is challenging for developers to be able to cost effectively build affordable housing when there's massive amounts of regulations that prevent them from doing that, right? And that make the projects longer and harder to do.

Rasheedah Phillips (39:22):

And so there just has to be parity and there has to be a holistic look at these kinds of policies that again create the circumstances where redlining persists, where what you talked about earlier, that we're in 2022, living in 1930 circumstances. People are living in 1930 conditions in their neighborhoods. The same areas that were redlined in Philadelphia are the same exact areas where people are being evicted, are the same exact areas where they were infected by COVID-19, where they are dying, where they are being lead poisoned. Right?

Rasheedah Phillips (39:51):

And it's striking that you can have two zip codes. Forget two zip codes, you can have the same zip code, two neighborhoods, side by side, where the life expectancy is a decade shorter, right? It's just such disparities. And I'm talking about the neighborhood I lived in, in Philadelphia, which is Brewerytown, right next to Sharswood. One of the richest neighborhoods, right? Smack dab, overlapping with one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city and the very stark invisible inequalities. Right? In terms of just block by block, which blocks are invested in and which blocks aren't. Right? And how that leads to more and more of the same and more and more entrenchment of poverty.

Rasheedah Phillips (40:34):

And so we have to look at these laws, we have to just get better and be better as people. Right? Because again, so much of this is by design. I haven't, because I've moved out of Philly for the most part, but just seeing about the property taxes about to be reassessed, right? And just the stark in equity that will come about as a result of that, the fact that there is still a tax break for developers who are building luxury housing. It is just. It's mad.

Rasheedah Phillips (41:04):

This is by design and we can no longer sit here and say, we didn't know this was going to happen, or we don't know what's coming, because we do know. And we're choosing whether or not to deal with it. That's what I would say. I can talk plenty more about other solutions, but those are the two I would uplift in the moment.

Kee Tobar (41:20):

I got two quick questions and I'll let you go. I really love the fact that you spoke about thinking creatively, right? And so we are lawyers, we've been talking about the law and talking about how we can advocate it as it relates to the legislator. But I love the imagining work you do actually with Black Quantum Futurism, that requires advocacy and activism beyond the tool of the law. Right? And so the question I have is how do we reimagine the ways we collaborate with impacted people and communities to build sustainable power? Right?

Kee Tobar (41:57):

Because it's not just about lawyers deciding what the tools and the solutions are, but it's about communities and having power deciding for themselves.

Rasheedah Phillips (42:07):

Absolutely. That's the most important thing, and I'm so glad that you asked that as the closing question. We absolutely have to recenter the leadership and the expertise and the experience of people who are most impacted. The solutions are never going to come from us. They're never going to come from the advocates, the people who are privileged with homes and steady incomes and steady lives, despite our own experiences. Right? And, and knowing where we come from, coming from very similar backgrounds as the people that we serve and collaborate with.

Rasheedah Phillips (42:37):

But we're not currently there. And so we have to rely on their expertise for us to lead the way, and we have to be a tool for what they believe are the right strategies that will advance what they need and want for their communities. And so part of that is about relationship building, right? So much of our work as lawyers, just because that's the nature of crisis work is transactional, right? And it's very atomized. It's focused on it's one issue and let's keep it moving, right? Because there's a hundred people after you coming through the door. Right?

Rasheedah Phillips (43:09):

And that's a symptom of just an outro of our society in some ways. But we have the option, right? If we take a seat back, right? And it's not saying it's not hard, it's very much easier said than done, but we have to create the space to authentically build the leadership and center to leadership of the folks most impacted and funnel the resources to them. Because it's one thing to create space and time for them, but if they ain't got money to do the planning and to do the work, it doesn't mean anything.

Rasheedah Phillips (43:36):

And so we both have to talk and say the right things, which comes first, right? In terms of shifting our values and our mindsets around what's possible and what's needed. But then we have to put the resources behind people to actually be able to do what they need to do. And so that's something that at PolicyLink I'm excited about, thinking about, how we deploy these resources to communities directly and married with so much of the experience that I had working in Philly, working at Community Legal Services alongside of, and in support of communities who are doing the work.

Rasheedah Phillips (44:09):

And just, right? In terms of my experience over the years, I would say that we have not advanced housing work as much as we did until we started to center the leadership of organizers and impacted folks. I can pinpoint a specific moment in time and I'm not a linear time person. Right? But I can tell you when, right? That shift started to happen. It was when folks started to organize, and when folks organized around a specific thing happening that they were able to get just cause eviction.

Rasheedah Phillips (44:39):

And that that led a platform, built a platform for being able to get right to counsel later, being able to get all these different things in Philadelphia, that we're now being touted as progressive in terms of our housing rights. It ain't because of advocates. Right? We help. We definitely help. We definitely are there. Right? And have built this work too, right? In terms of actually moving it, actually getting the goods, as they say, organizers get the goods. That's what happened. We had to center their leadership and we had to shift our model in a way that we were approaching things and not succumb to, again, that crisis model that eats us all up and burns us all out, and then none of us can do the work.

Rasheedah Phillips (45:15):

And so that's what I see, centering the leadership. That's how we reimagine this thing. We really put people in the driver's seat. It's not an overnight thing. Right? It does take that relationship building. It does take that trust work. Because working with organizers, working with impacted folks, right? Coming into a community, I could even live in that community, just talking about Sharswood, for example, I lived in that community. I thought I knew what was up. I didn't know what was up. Right?

Rasheedah Phillips (45:38):

I didn't know until I started talking to people, going to meetings, showing up, doing the work with folks and alongside of folks and talking to folks, not at folks or down to folks or coming in and doing a presentation and thinking I did something. No, I had to spend time with people. And then I had to figure out how to deploy resources to those folks. Right? And that calls for, in some ways pushing back against some of the standards, in terms of what folks are willing to fund, what funders are willing to fund.

Rasheedah Phillips (46:05):

And a lot of times in our work, right? They're willing to fund the direct representation, what's absolutely needed, but not always willing to fund the policy or the advocacy, or sub granting, or getting other folks the resources. And so figuring out ways that we can start that pushback as lawyers, as advocates in this world so that we can make sure that the resources go to the people who need to be building the strategies and we need to be working in support of their vision.

Kee Tobar (46:35):

Rasheedah, thank you for this conversation, for doing this show, for doing this podcast. Thank you for the work that you do. You know you're my shero. I'm so appreciative of the work that you do, and the fact that you joined this podcast. It's been informative for me and I hope it's informative for the audience. So thank you again.

Rasheedah Phillips (46:51):

Anytime. Thank you so much for having me.

Kee Tobar (47:06):

That was my conversation with Rasheedah Phillips. I hope you found it as insightful and informative as I did. One thing I really appreciate about Rasheedah, is her ability to distill huge quantities of complex information into knowledge that everybody can understand and learn from. I hope that as a listener, you have a deeper understanding of the housing crisis in this country, and the many structural inequities built into it. If you want to know more about Rasheedah's work, you can follow her on Twitter at RPhillipsBQF. That's R-P-H-I-L-L-I-P-S-B-Q-F.

Kee Tobar (47:41):

You can check out PolicyLink at, and you should definitely check out Black Quantum Futurism's creative work as well. How Is That Legal is produced by Rowhome Productions. Jake Nussbaum is our Producer and Editor. Executive Producers are Alex Lewis and John Myers. Music provided by Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to Zakya Hall, Caitlin Nagel, and Molly Pollak. I'm your host Kee Tobar. That's going to do it for our show. Thanks for listening. Please, please subscribe to the show and join us next time.