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

This Is How We Can Build Power

February 01, 2023 Community Legal Services of Philadelphia Season 2 Episode 1
This Is How We Can Build Power
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
This Is How We Can Build Power
Feb 01, 2023 Season 2 Episode 1
Community Legal Services of Philadelphia

Pennsylvania State Senator Nikil Saval breaks down why racism is the bedrock of America’s housing system and how anti-Black attitudes led the federal government to neglect affordable housing for decades. Senator Saval illustrates how movements can build power through coalition-building and “making an ask,” and he explains how initiatives like a Homes Guarantee, Whole-Home Repairs, and eviction record sealing would help address racial inequity in housing.


Nikil Saval (@SenatorSaval) represents Pennsylvania’s first district in the State Senate. Prior to elected office, Senator Saval was an organizer with UNITE HERE and the Bernie Sanders campaign, as well as a journalist for the New York Times, The New Yorker, and n+1.

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 Farwa Zaidi. Music provided by Blue Dot Sessions.

Support the Show.

Show Notes Transcript

Pennsylvania State Senator Nikil Saval breaks down why racism is the bedrock of America’s housing system and how anti-Black attitudes led the federal government to neglect affordable housing for decades. Senator Saval illustrates how movements can build power through coalition-building and “making an ask,” and he explains how initiatives like a Homes Guarantee, Whole-Home Repairs, and eviction record sealing would help address racial inequity in housing.


Nikil Saval (@SenatorSaval) represents Pennsylvania’s first district in the State Senate. Prior to elected office, Senator Saval was an organizer with UNITE HERE and the Bernie Sanders campaign, as well as a journalist for the New York Times, The New Yorker, and n+1.

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 Farwa Zaidi. Music provided by Blue Dot Sessions.

Support the Show.

Kee Tobar (00:05):

Hello everyone, and welcome to How Is That Legal?, the podcast where we break down examples of systemic racial inequity and 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 launch season two of How Is That Legal?, and welcome our guest, State Senator Nikil Saval, to the show. Before representing Pennsylvania's first district in the state senate, he was an organizer with Unite Here and the Bernie Sanders campaign, as well as the journalist for the New York Times, The New Yorker, and n+1.


Today, Senator Saval joins us to share his vision for policy that treats housing as a public good. We talk about how the federal government chose to neglect public housing once the "projects" became synonymous with Black, how the current market-based solution for affordable housing perpetuates segregation, and how racism is really a cornerstone upon which this country's entire housing system is built. But we also discuss solutions such as the Whole-Home Repairs Act and eviction record sealing, two policies that Senator Saval is working on at the state level to fight discrimination in the public and private housing market and move toward a homes guarantee for all. We'll talk about what that means too. Take a listen.


Welcome, Senator Saval to How Is That Legal?. Thank you so much for joining us. Could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about how you came to this work?

Nikil Saval (01:39):

Sure. So thank you for having me. I am the state senator representing the First Senate District, which in Philadelphia is all of Center City, South Philly, East of Broad Street. We have the River Wards, Kensington, Fishtown, Port Richmond, and a bit of Southwest Philly in Eastwick around the airport. Before this, I was professionally a journalist. I worked as a journalist in writing about architecture, housing design. I freelanced for the New Yorker and the New York Times. But while I was doing that, I was always working volunteer as a community and labor organizer. So I volunteered with Unite Here, which represents hospitality workers, working on hotel campaigns, organizing campaigns, and workers at the airport, food service workers, things like that.


And then in 2016 I got involved in the Bernie Sanders campaign as a volunteer, and founded a progressive organization out of that called Reclaim Philadelphia, which has helped to elect candidates to local and state office focusing on things like housing justice, on climate justice, and the like. And that brought me closer to a lot of those issues into kind of neighborhood level organizing. And basically I was recruited to run for state senate, and I've actually got very interested in state politics and doing state level work because I think there's a lot of interesting work to be done there. So that's the kind of trajectory I followed, even though it was never my life plan.

Kee Tobar (03:14):

Awesome. So the name of this podcast is How Is That Legal?. So could you tell us about a time when you had to ask yourself, "How in the world was that legal?"

Nikil Saval (03:23):

The first time I was reflecting on this would probably be the start of the so-called War on Terror in the United States. And when the United States, I was 18 in college, I went to college in New York City, and the September 11th attacks took place a few weeks after I started college. And soon after that the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. And I had to say I didn't understand the basis for those invasions. I didn't understand the kind of collective basis or the legal basis and all the subsequent activity around it. The establishment of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the Black sites in Afghanistan. Of course the extensive use of torture to extract information that all of these things were horrifying to me.


And I realized that there was no kind of... There's nothing stopping a lot of what was happening. And basically it was just power, that the power of the United States and the international hegemony of the United States licensed a lot of these things. So a lot of what is legal or is not legal or the way the law interacts with established institutions or countries often cedes to or is influenced very deeply by power. And that was, to me as a young person, very shocking.

Kee Tobar (04:58):

What did you do with that feeling right, that feeling of shock?

Nikil Saval (05:01):

Well, I would say that the first shock I felt was powerlessness, to be honest. I was moved to participate in the anti-war movement at that time. And I have to say, growing up as a young person, I wanted to be a writer. I was involved in literature. I just had a very idealized view of what the world would be like. I would write novels, I would read books. I went to college in New York. New York is where writing happens, I thought... And then it turns out it's also where the global center of finance and major real estate capital, it also is so many other things. And so being shocked into all those realizations, but then not knowing how to confront them and trying to with mass protests, but also feeling that those protests weren't achieving what we wanted to achieve, that was very frustrating.


And so I wanted to find myself into forms of organizing and activity that were closer to individual people that built lasting relationships where we could build real movement power, and in areas where maybe we weren't supposed to, and we meaning, people maybe that looked like me, who came from backgrounds like mine. And so I found my way into the labor movement into organizing. I honestly just reached out to the local of Unite Here when I was in graduate school in San Francisco. And they accepted me as a volunteer and trained me as a boycott organizer, which meant that I would be moving, helping to move organizations from having events at hotels where workers were on strike or had boycotted the hotel because they were trying to organize the union and their union wasn't being recognized. And suddenly I was part of a multiracial working class coalition that was Black, that was Latinx, that was Asian American, that had built power in a very expensive, in some ways, city very hostile to this kind of activity, which was San Francisco.


And that transformed my sense of powerlessness into a sense of, "Oh, this is how we can build power. This is a kind of nucleus of what it feels and looks like." And the feeling was in some ways the most important part that I thought, "Oh, from this feeling is community. This is solidarity. This is exactly the opposite of what I felt in 2002, 2003 when we were protesting fighting against the war." And that has led me not in a kind of linear path, but to a number of different forms of work that draw on that basic feeling that organized people can really achieve great things.

Kee Tobar (08:03):

I love that story of looking to your left, looking to your right, and using the people around you or working with people around you to build power and to work and build a movement. And speaking of movement, so one of the things that I'm really excited to talk about today is housing as a human right. You said before housing is something that we should be guaranteeing as a society. I'd like to talk about what housing as a human right would look like. But first, I want to start with your experience with housing instability at age 18. What happened, and how did it shape the way you were understanding the issue?

Nikil Saval (08:41):

So growing up, I grew up in Los Angeles. My parents are from South Asia, from India, and I was born and raised in Los Angeles. And my parents owned a pizza restaurant when I was growing up which is a business that is... It's a small business. It was a deep dish pizza joint. I ate a lot of pizza growing up. Yeah, it's not underrated. It's underrated. But businesses like that are up and down, they're subject to not just to whether people come in or not, whether they're ordering food or not, but also you're leasing from a landlord usually. You may not own your building. And so in the late '90s, the landlord of the building where my parents owned their restaurant, sold the building. So they had to close the restaurant, and that suddenly left my parents without a kind of stable source of income when they were in middle-aged, that's a tough place to be in.


And so my parents sold their house and moved back to India for a period of time, and this is when I had just started college. So for a period of time I didn't have a stable kind of anchor in the United States. Now, in one sense, there's some privilege there. My parents did own their home. They did choose in some sense to sell their home, but they were driven to that point. And for me, it was a real experience of where's my home? Where do I live? What happens when I leave university? And I was on scholarship at the college. I was at a Columbia. We didn't have a lot of money.


And so when I came out of college, I remember renting an apartment for way more than it was worth in New York City. And immediately there was this development that threatened the rental floor of my apartment, which was already more than I could afford. I was making $28,000 a year in publishing. My apartment was a thousand dollars a month that just doesn't really pencil out. And there was an attempt to build a multi high rise condo development attached to a basketball arena in Brooklyn where I was living. This is subsequently been part of it has been built, it's the Barclays Arena, it's where the Brooklyn Nets play.


Actually going back to the question of how is this legal? I thought, how is it the case that the state just subsidizes this major development, this basketball arena, I mean these multi-billionaire owners of sports franchises? So that was a point where again, I thought, I don't have a place, there's no one I can go to, where do I go? And I think those two experiences really drove my interest in housing and ensuring housing stability. And then I think we ensure a lot of mobility for wealthy people, for corporations, just the... One of the reasons that they subsidize basketball arenas and things like that is sports franchises are like, "Well, we might just leave." But other people don't have that choice. They're pushed to leave, they're displaced. And so I think that my experience was... I shared some of that experience, or at least I had a glimpse into it.

Kee Tobar (12:22):

The more I learned about corporate welfare and then looked at what this question I'm going to ask you, the more it really kind of upsets me. And I think the more people who learn about corporate welfare and how many tax breaks and incentives people are getting, I think maybe we could reframe what we think about when we think about welfare and handouts. But adjusting for inflation, the federal government spends less to fund the Department of Housing and Urban Development than it did 30 years ago. For example, PHA's housing stock here in Philadelphia needs 1.5 billion in repairs. And thousands of PHA units sit vacant and are being sold to private developers because I can't afford to make the repairs. By HUD's latest count, America's public housing authorities have 227,000 fewer units of housing than they did in 1999, which blows my mind. I think of these numbers, and then I think of the Faircloth Amendment. Can you explain what the Faircloth Amendment is and describe what role it plays in all of this?

Nikil Saval (13:25):

The Faircloth Amendment essentially limits the amount of public housing that an authority can create. You can't have any more units than you had in 1999, I believe it is. And what that comes out of is this notion that providing housing or providing any kind of public assistance is a disincentive for people to find housing of their own, to find work. This kind of anti-welfare movement that really developed, that really reshaped society in the 1990s, it ended welfare as we know it in the words of Bill Clinton. And basically what that means is, it's difficult for housing authorities that have reached the kind of cap on housing that they're allowed to build even they're not meeting the needs. So we know that there's an incredible wait list of people looking for housing in Philadelphia that just is thousands deep.


So that's one part of it, but the other part is, I mean the Faircloth amendment is just one example of the way that we've disinvested in public assistance and housing altogether because we're actually below our Faircloth caps in Philadelphia. What is another source is there's just not enough federal funding coming down from HUD for PHA, for a housing authority to build the number of units that they even to meet the cap that they are legally allowed. So I don't think there should be a cap, but we also think that we need the federal funding even to be able to try to exceed that cap, let alone repair and retrofit all the existing units where there's so much deferred maintenance. And it's just another way that we don't treat housing as a kind of fundamental public good among many other public things that we don't treat as public goods like healthcare, and a like.

Kee Tobar (15:31):

Just as a suggestion, if you're Philadelphia-based, read the book Philadelphia Divided because then we start thinking about during the Great Depression or World War II, we had the opportunity in Philadelphia to actually add more public housing, but directly because of race we decided not to. And so if you're just interested in learning more about that history, read the book Philadelphia Divided. But connected to that and the Faircloth Amendment, how is race and racism connected to that legislation?

Nikil Saval (16:05):

Well, the basic opinion of what became common sense in the United States and still is unfortunately common sense is this notion that there are kind of deserving and undeserving poor, and public assistance... Well, because of systemic racism, low income homeowners or people seeking housing overwhelmingly are Black and brown. Well, it goes back to the founding of the country. It goes back to systemic dispossession of Black and brown Americans through the history of this country, but housing is one key side of that. Even when housing was being guaranteed to the government was underwriting loans to homeowners in the United States, they systematically excluded Black homeowners from having access to credit or Black potential homeowners from having access to credit. Even when they ended defacto segregation in housing lending, Black homeowners were included on unequal terms. The scholar, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, she calls this predatory inclusion. So there are all kinds of ways that the housing market itself is deeply racist.


In terms of the public housing market because housing over time largely became very segregated. It was seen as a provision for Black residents, and the kind of conservative movement in this country, which just decided that we shouldn't be providing housing to Black people in the United States. And so they felt like it was necessary to disinvest from it. Now, there are all kinds of rationales for this, again, that this was a disincentive for people to find housing, to find work, et cetera. None of which is actually true. Actually having housing makes it easier to find work. Having high wages makes it easier for people to work one job rather than two or three. It makes it easier to pay for childcare. There's so many different ways that actually this system is exact unravels the kind of supports that it's supposed to be upholding. So there's no telling the history of public housing in the United States or housing altogether without telling the history of race in the United States.

Kee Tobar (18:38):

Now, that Congress has chosen to invest very little in public housing, a major source of funding for affordable housing is the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program known as LIHTC. How does this program work, and how do you feel about the program?

Nikil Saval (18:53):

The Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program I would say comes in part out of a lot of the responses to public housing that we've been talking about. Many people who felt that public housing in the... By this 1960s or '70s who felt that public housing in the United States had failed in many different ways. And in some ways that isn't wrong. I mean it had been disinvested in the apartments, the units weren't kept up. There was a lot of neglect by the United States in housing, again overwhelmingly because of racism, because of largely who lived in public housing units, there was an attempt to use the market basically to find a way out of this situation.


And so the Low Income Housing Tax Credit is a way of subsidizing private housing developers to build affordable units. And one of the things that people felt about public housing was that you attended to concentrate working class poor residents in overwhelmingly together. And so the hope with the Low Income Housing Tax Credit is that the market would build housing outside... In many different kinds of neighborhoods, you'd have working class and poorer residents living in wealthier areas. So it also would help mitigate against the effects of gentrification, which have really accelerated since the 1980s, which is when the program was introduced.


A lot of that hasn't been born out in fact, I mean the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program is what exists. It is the primary way that we develop affordable housing at this point in this country, but it's a fairly shallow subsidy so it doesn't reduce result in the number of units that would meet the actual need of resonance, the actual need of the United States for affordable housing. It has huge overhead costs because it's not a direct subsidy because it's not just giving grants to produce housing. Through the tax system, you have a lot of overheads. You end up not just paying... It's not just using through developers, you're paying consultants and lawyers to work through the program. And it also is not exactly deconcentrating poverty. I mean it does tend to... The low income units do still tend, they're not often built in kind of low poverty or kind of gentrifying areas. I mean sometimes that's the case, but they're still largely built outside of those areas. So you still have the same issue that people felt was going on with public housing.

Kee Tobar (21:46):

When we think about, again, as you stated public housing, now we see it often as it failed, but we don't really look as to see why the exact reasons as it... The reasons why it failed or factors as to why it failed.

Nikil Saval (22:00):

Yeah, I mean when you look at the early history of public housing, when you study the testimonies of people who just moved into new units, and there's a lot of bad history there. People were being... There were neighborhoods that were raised that were working class neighborhoods for public housing. People were expelled from their neighborhoods. But when they did move into those new units, there was actually a lot of hope in them. And they were new, there was some investment in them and the appliances were new, everything, and people liked them. And early on they weren't quite as segregated as they became. And as the public housing became more and more segregated, not coincidentally, there was a massive disinvestment in resources. Like you said, the jobs went away due to de-industrialization. These are all these forces combined to give us the kind of image of public housing that we have now, but it didn't have to be that way.

Kee Tobar (23:12):

So I've heard you talk about a home guarantee. What does that mean to you?

Nikil Saval (23:18):

Basically, I believe that housing, like healthcare, like nutrition, all of these things are things that one needs to live should be considered rights and those rights need to be guaranteed. The phrase homes guarantee isn't mine, it came out of a movement, in particular the organization, People's Action, and was led by Tara Raghuveer, who's a tenant's rights activist in Kansas City, but working with tenants rights advocates, with housing experts, with people directly involved and impacted by the housing crisis to develop a platform for a housing abundant future.


And what it means is that we need to tackle this housing crisis in so many different ways that we need to be building many more affordable units than we're building. The order of millions which we're not even close to approaching now, that we need to be preserving and transforming our existing housing, that we need to be preserving and transforming our existing public housing, that we need to guarantee certain rights to tenants, that they need to have the right to counsel in the case of eviction, that they need to have rent stabilization or control so that we don't see the crazy transformation and rise in rents and inflation and rents that we're seeing in the last year or so. And all of these things that would combine lead to something like the notion that housing is a right and that the United States or event, of course I hope the world, but United States guarantees that right to its residents, again, in the wealthiest country in the world, no one should have to go without housing.

Kee Tobar (25:13):

Agreed. How do you think a homes guarantee would address racial discrimination in the rental housing market?

Nikil Saval (25:20):

So fundamentally, it's impossible to tell the history of the housing market to tell the history of housing in the United States without telling the history of racism. The birth of our housing market as we understand it today comes out of the entire history of race in the United States. The net result of that is that Black and brown residents of virtually any neighborhood face discrimination, even though that discrimination may not be legal, they face discrimination if they have, for example, a housing choice voucher or Section 8 voucher, which in many places again is not legal, but this is the sort of thing that is impossible to enforce, but they may not be... Sometimes discrimination is not spoken but is obvious. And those are the kinds of things that are the most difficult to enforce through our current legal infrastructure.


But a lot of this has to do with the fact that there isn't simply enough available housing and available affordable housing. And that again is in some sense by design, the fact of their being exclusionary zoning, the history of zoning, limiting the number of apartments in a particular neighborhood. And in turn, the number of affordable apartments tends to affect Black and brown residents disproportionately. So being able to build guarantee housing as a right to build a sufficient or at least begin to approach a sufficient number of affordable units would limit the amount. The market, it's the fact that they're being a housing market itself and that people compete for apartments and outbid each other on rents or on home prices. That fact just disproportionately makes it harder for Black and brown residents to find stable, and secure, and safe, and healthy housing.


So a future of housing abundance. And I should add part of this is a future of green housing abundance. That we want these homes to be energy efficient, we want them to be green, we don't want them... The very fact of their being gas, and inadequate heating, and things like that in people's homes is, again, disproportionately impacts Black and brown residents. It makes those homes less healthy, less habitable. So ensuring that this housing would be green as well, I think would greatly mitigate the racial disparities that are just built in to our housing system.

Kee Tobar (27:58):

Awesome. So one of the things with this podcast that I always try to make sure we do, it's just not necessarily talk about what the problems and the obstacles are, but to also talk about some of those solutions. One as a way to just present solutions to folks, but also to gather support for the people who are coming up with these creative ideas to address these long-standing issues. So I like to now talk about a few key policy solutions that you were working on at the state level to address the housing crisis. And we'll start with the Whole Home Repairs policy. We talked a little about Whole Home Repairs in season one of the show with my colleague Kinteshia Scott and Bishop Dwayne Royster from POWER Well, you successfully sponsored and passed and historic investment in home repairs during your first time in the Senate. Congratulations. Tell us about what is the Whole Home Repair program?

Nikil Saval (28:54):

The Whole Home Repair Program was born out of my feeling, and I believe it is a shared feeling among housing advocates, organizers, everyone who's impacted that everyone has a right to a home that is safe, healthy, and habitable. And just thousands of Pennsylvanians are denied this right every day. And overwhelmingly this is in homes that they already live in. There may be homes that they own or their homes that they rent. And those habitability issues look like lack of inadequate heat, lack of plumbing, a roof that leaks energy burdens that are insanely high, low income Philadelphians pay an average of about 23% of their incomes on utilities, on energy bills alone, that's not even including rent or mortgage. So that can lead to displacement, or to the loss of a home, or at the very least a home that is not habitable because you don't always have the lights or the heat on.


So all of these things, and I should add habitability includes the ability to age in place if you have changing physical needs, so people with disabilities not able to adapt their homes to their needs. We also just have an aging stock in Pennsylvania, so this is especially pronounced in our state. We just have homes that are great or wonderful, a 100-year-old homes in some ways, but they show their age and that age impacts their residents. And the Whole Home Repair Act basically is meant to address all these problems at once. So what it does is it provides grants of up to $50,000 for homeowners to make the kinds of repairs that we need. It also provides up to that same amount to small landlords so that they can make repairs for tenants. And there's a restriction on that, which is that you can't increase the rents by a certain amount on those tenants after making those repairs so that people aren't displaced.


It also coordinates with existing housing programs. It funds support staff in counties that apply for the funding to help people navigate the bewildering number of existing programs that they may or may not be eligible for. And it'll help you do that in the right order. So it could help you apply for a Whole Home Repairs grant, but also then apply to get your home weatherized if you're eligible so that you can reduce your energy burdens. And finally, it funds workforce development training. It gives dollars to counties to train people into jobs to help repair their homes, to help repair our communities. It's a growing field and many people don't make their way through those programs because they don't have stipends for childcare and a like. So it does all these three things. It's meant to be a kind of one-stop shop for home repairs and weatherization. And we hope that it begins to make it possible for people to stay in their homes because in many ways the most affordable home is the one you already live in.

Kee Tobar (32:12):

We've been talking about these policies and as it relates to keeping people in their homes, but there's a whole host of other collateral consequences that we often don't necessarily put together that a program like this, the Whole Home Repairs Program kind of helps alleviate to a degree, for an example, people don't understand how utilities connects or having inadequate housing connects to the child welfare system, how people can have their children taken away if they don't live in a habitable home, or if they don't have appropriate utilities because the utilities will be high if your home is not weatherized, and a certain type of way. So they don't connect it necessarily to that. And they also maybe don't connect it to, we were having a conversation about tangled titles and how people wouldn't have the access to be able to repair homes.


So they don't think about wealth building about how simply being able to repair your home is connected to that, but also the stabilization of communities. You have communities with a lot of unrepaired rundown homes, how that affects crime, how that affects self-esteem, so and so forth. And so we think of talking about Whole Home Repairs as just making sure that people can stay in their homes. But again, there's a whole host of other factors or connections that kind of are serviced by a program like this. So this is fantastic.

Nikil Saval (33:46):

Thank you. Yeah. One of the reasons that the program was able to be successful and we were able to secure support for it was because so many different people found so many different reasons to support it. And all of those reasons are real. It is a community stabilization initiative. It is a disability rights initiative, it is a climate initiative, and it is a community anti-violence initiative. So we want all of those things were part of the bill, and we hope that it grows and sustains itself so that it has those effects.

Kee Tobar (34:22):

That's awesome. How did you come to understand home repairs as a racial justice issue?

Nikil Saval (34:28):

So there are a number of different studies that show that people most in need of home repairs, low income, Black and brown residents in Philadelphia or across the state tend to be denied home repair loans. The kind of conventional loans that white homeowners or wealthier homeowners tend to get access to. And that just means that the need and the need for home repairs, the need for adapting your home is much more pronounced among Black and brown residents. Historically, who have also not had access to the most habitable homes in the best kept up neighborhoods, and with the access to the best services and the like. So there is a kind of history behind that, but it just continues to this day where people just don't have access to the things that they would need in order to make the basic repairs. And those things get worse over time.


Those repairs, if you don't attend to a leaky roof, water always wins basically. And that's just been the case for many people for many, many years. And so I think of this, I don't want to... There is a connection between in repairs and reparations in some sense for the kind of, this is only a part of, it's a small part of it, but in terms of the historic inequities in our housing market. And it kind of is most pronounced in some ways in the fact that many people just don't have habitable homes. And so I hope that this direct subsidy is a way to kind of start to change that picture.

Kee Tobar (36:14):

Switching gears, let's talk about another important housing issue that you have been working on. An eviction record is created anytime a landlord files a court case against a tenant. And under current law that eviction record stays publicly visible for decades until the future, even if the tenant wins the court case, which I find to be wild. You've supported changing the law to sealing eviction records where the tenant won or records that are outdated. Can you tell us why Pennsylvania should make this a priority?

Nikil Saval (36:45):

Fundamentally, the way that we deal with eviction records is deeply unfair and it makes it harder for people even who have won their cases in court, eviction cases in court to find housing in the future. Just the notion that you could have an eviction filed against you, you go to court or you otherwise negotiate at some... You negotiate away with your landlord that eviction trial and that you still would have a record, so that when you go to find a new apartment, a landlord uses commonly available tenant screening software, finds you have an eviction record and decides, well, this person, they had eviction record against them. I don't know that I want to rent to them. That affects thousands and thousands of people. Many of us have been in that situation. Many of us know people who have had evictions filed against them, and maybe again, haven't seen judgements in court, and they can't get new housing or it's much harder for them.


And all the eviction sealing does is it changes the way that those records are available to people, and it distinguishes between whether you have a judgment in court or not. So that when you go to find new housing, the record is in some sense accurate. And I think overall eviction is violence. Eviction is a form of deep community instability. We have a lot of tools that we've developed here in Philadelphia to reduce the number of evictions to kind of end... During the pandemic, we actually made it possible in some ways to end poverty based eviction by combining rental assistance with eviction diversion. But this eviction record sealing legislation, which I've introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature, which my colleagues in the house, in the PA house, Elizabeth Feeder and Rick Krajewski have introduced in the PA house. We believe that this is just a matter of fairness, and it would dramatically increase the ability of people to be stably and securely housed.

Kee Tobar (38:59):

The issues of eviction records in home repairs are actually closely connected. A tenant advocating for home repairs can face an eviction case in retaliation, and someone with an eviction record may only be accepted to housing that's in deep need of repairs because as you said, people will find housing, but what quality of housing is the question? How does race and gender enter the equation? What communities feel these impacts the most and why?

Nikil Saval (39:28):

For a lot of the reasons that we've been talking about the deep interrelation of racism and the housing market in particular, the rental market, people most likely to have an eviction record, again, whether they've been evicted or not. People tend to be Black and brown, they tend to be Black women or certainly non cis male. And I think that this overwhelmingly, people face discrimination in the housing market sometimes because they have children, sometimes because they don't have partners or they're single and have children.


And all of this leads to a disproportionate representation of Black women in rental discrimination, in housing discrimination, in living in substandard conditions, in housing that needs repairs. I think that for that reason, there also is a kind of neglect of this issue. There is just a kind of political and policy neglect of this issue, and it is largely Black women and who have been organizing against the kinds of discrimination that we see. And it's thanks to that kind of organizing that the pressure on fairness and the right to housing has been raised in housing discussions. So as policymakers and as working with the legal aid, I mean, I think that's what's being reflected is fundamentally pressure from below.

Kee Tobar (41:11):

We've talked about some big ideas today. What is your experience as a community organizer till you is necessary to make some of these ideas a reality?

Nikil Saval (41:22):

So one of the things that I've learned in the legislative process, but I think derives from some of my experience in community and labor organizing is that you should always make an ask. And you shouldn't expect that what you're trying to achieve is impossible from the outset. So we were able to pass through a Republican majority legislature, a major affordable housing program, the Whole Home Repairs Act, it was bipartisan, it was supported by several Republican legislators. And in part that was because we didn't presume that the answer was no. I stopped legislators in the hallway, I sent them the legislation. I would continually go back to them to simply make an ask, would you sign onto this legislation? And the fact is several people did, and overwhelmingly it was voted for.


So that was one key piece is that relational organizing is one-on-one organizing, which is what I did. I had a lot of one-on-ones with kind of legislators to find out their interest in this. We shouldn't presume, for example, that my being from Philadelphia being a fairly progressive member of the legislature, would prevent a rural more conservative legislator from having many of the same issues in their district. And that just was the case. This is not the issue that we were dealing with in the Whole Home Repairs Act is not an issue that is limited to Philadelphia. It is not simply an urban issue. It is in fact very pronounced across Pennsylvania, and is very similar in urban and rural areas. So that was something I discovered simply because I didn't presume that the answer was no. But behind that was the fact that we developed a lot of public pressure, and the Whole Home Repairs Act was buoyed by organizing, not just in Philadelphia, but across the state.


And organizations like Lancaster stands up or Berks and Lehigh Valley stands up, make the Road Pennsylvania. We held rallies in Lancaster, Redding, Allentown, Republican, and democratic districts to build political support for Whole Home Repairs. My colleague in the house that Sarah and Amarado in Pittsburgh led the charge in... Along with Rick Krajewski led the charge in the house to have the bill become a priority. So doing so in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania, you frankly need people or powers is organized people, and in the tradition I come out of, we say power is organized people and organize money. And the money part is the money we were able to secure for Whole Home Repairs. That is that $125 million in state funding to which is a start, which is a major win, but it is a start to begin to meet the need of what people were asking for frankly.


And the organizing that happened largely was impacted people. It was impacted constituents who could speak directly to the issues that would be treated in this legislation. So I think that the tradition of mass organizing, again across boundaries that might seem difficult to transgress or that might seem immutable, and doing so also on a one-to-one basis in the legislature, I think those things have helped to at least impart secure some of the success we've seen so far.

Kee Tobar (45:18):

Well, Senator, thank you for your audacity. Thank you for your imagination. This has been an inspiring conversation, one, just to inspire us to see how one person working together with others can really make a difference. And, so thank you for joining the podcast today. It's been a great conversation.

Nikil Saval (45:52):

Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.

Kee Tobar (45:53):

Thank you Senator Saval for helping us kick off season two the right way. I was really moved when Senator Saval talked about going from a feeling of powerlessness to working with the people around him to build power and ultimately a movement. That's how legislation like Whole Home Repairs, eviction diversion, and right to Council in Philadelphia gets passed, and so many other victories that once seemed impossible.


My hope is that this season of How Is That Legal? leads you to ask questions that bring you closer to the people and communities around you, and that you connect with others who overcome the sense of powerlessness that white supremacy relies on to survive. Once we understand how it's all legal, we can absolutely change that. If you want to ask questions about the show or let us know what you think, please email us at Also, while Community Legal Services of Philadelphia offers free legal assistance on a range of civil legal issues, we are not a criminal defense firm. So if you live in Philadelphia and are looking for noncriminal legal help, please visit us at We cannot respond to questions about legal issues via email.


Season two of 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 Caitlin Nagel, Zakya Hall, and Farwa Zaidi. I'm your host, Kee Tobar.