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Fair Leases in Philadelphia

October 30, 2023

Prof. David Hoffman and a team of Penn Carey Law students created a pathbreaking model lease for Philadelphia that is fair, legal, and free.

A key feature of American law is that courts generally will not enforce contract terms that violate public policy. Accordingly, contract drafters should not include terms that cannot stand up in court. Yet a 2021 study of 170,000 residential leases in Philadelphia revealed that these leases often contain unenforceable, illegal terms.

David Hoffman David HoffmanThat groundbreaking research by David Hoffman, William A. Schnader Professor of Law, and Anton Strezhnev, Assistant Professor at University of Chicago Department of Political Science, laid the foundation to launch the Philadelphia Fair Lease Project, an initiative aimed at promoting fair, healthy landlord-tenant relationships through the use of a fully legal model lease.

“We studied over 100,000 private leases in Philadelphia and found that a growing proportion were ‘form leases’—both cheap internet forms and templates developed by landlord organizations,” said Strezhnev. “Over the last few decades, it’s become easier for landlords to adopt these forms, and we found that they contain a lot of terms that are unenforceable or just generally oppressive.”

Armed with the research findings, Hoffman recruited a team of Penn Carey Law students to address this problem. Together, their goal was to create a model lease that was fair to Philadelphia’s landlords and tenants, fully legal under state and local laws and, most importantly, free.

“I was looking for a cross-disciplinary research assistantship focused on housing issues and community engagement,” said Cade Underwood L’23, MCP’23, who is a Penn Carey Law Catalyst Fellow and Legislative Aide for the Office of Councilmember Kendra Brooks. While a student at the Law School, Underwood was Executive Director of the Penn Housing Rights Project and Research Assistant for the Housing Initiative at Penn.

“When Professor Hoffman shared an opportunity to tackle communications, community outreach, and help tailor the model lease to local law, it was a perfect fit,” Underwood said.

The team also included Toll Public Interest Fellow Jordan Konell L’22, who helped launch the project, conducted stakeholder outreach, and contributed to the model lease’s design, and Toll Public Interest Scholar Julian Lutz L’25, MPA’25, who collaborated with Underwood to refine the model lease design, distilled relevant laws and policies into accessible content for the project’s website, and conducted community and stakeholder outreach. Finally, a team of JD and LLM students in “Legal Communication Workshop: Information Design,” taught by Lecturer in Law Sean Kiley, improved the design and readability of the model lease.

“I was so lucky to work with this team,” said Hoffman. “From the awesome core of JD students to our LLM designers and translators, everyone played a role in bringing the model lease to life. The modern practice of law is built on bringing a variety of skills to the table and working collaboratively to achieve the clients’ ends. This project brought that reality home to me.”

A Fair, Legal, and Free Model Lease

Small landlords, who essentially function as small businesses, face a relatively complex legal landscape involving specific permits, licenses, and lease addenda intended to protect both landlord and tenants. Underwood and Lutz emphasized that many landlords across the city are doing their best to fulfill their responsibilities and often look for help online.

Julian Lutz L'25, MPA'25 Julian Lutz L'25, MPA'25“The small landlord is an important figure in Philadelphia,” Lutz said. “Most want to have a good relationship with their tenants, but they don’t always have enough legal guidance. At the same time, legal self-service is a reality of modern life for many people, including landlords.”

As more and more landlords in Philadelphia turned to the internet for legal help, downloadable form leases emerged as affordable yet flawed resources.

“Most of these form leases are unfair to tenants and contain bad, often illegal, language that can confuse and harm people. Generally, landlords don’t even understand what is in these leases which can also lead to legal problems for them down the road.” Underwood noted. “A simplified, legal, and trusted model lease makes a huge difference for everyone involved.”

Hoffman and his team knew landlords and their tenants needed a better alternative to generic form leases; a model lease created specifically for Philadelphia would have a tremendously positive impact.

“The goal of this project wasn’t to replace private, expensive, and maximally protective leases designed for well-resourced landlords,” Hoffman explained. “It was to give landlords looking for an easy, fair, lease a free option only a click away. And to make sure that these leases of convenience complied with the rules.”

The Philadelphia Fair Lease Project’s work to develop a custom model lease for the city wasn’t a theoretical project. “We worked to make sure that the lease had broad visibility. Being the number one Google search result for a Philadelphia Model Lease vindicated our strategy,” Hoffman added.

“It was important for us to create a free, accessible resource,” noted Konell, now an Associate at Willig, Williams & Davidson. “From an advocacy perspective, if part of the problem is that people are downloading form leases from the internet, it makes sense to create a better option. What would it mean for a contracts expert like Professor Hoffman to be the architect of a best-practice rental lease in Philadelphia?”

To build support and gather diverse input on the model’s design, the team collaborated with city officials, associations representing landlords and property owners, legal services organizations, and nonprofits. Konell, who worked on housing policy prior to law school, leveraged his knowledge of the city’s 2018 eviction prevention taskforce to increase support for the model lease.

Jordan Konell L'22 Jordan Konell L'22“We talked to so many people, including city officials, who said ‘this is exactly what we’ve been looking for’,” Konell said. “We were able to use the city’s finding in its eviction prevention report as a backbone for our pitch, since the city’s own taskforce identified exactly what we were offering—a model lease—as a key eviction prevention tool.”

Today, the model lease has been downloaded nearly 130 times and is available in Spanish, Mandarin, Russian, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Khmer, and Arabic. The project also inspired important change in the Philadelphia landlord-tenant space; at least one local organization advocating on behalf of property owners released an improved proprietary lease for its members.

“When we started this project, we had one goal: to provide Philadelphia landlords and renters with a better lease option, whether that was the Philadelphia Fair Lease Project’s model lease or some other option,” Hoffman said. “We were very pleased to see local organizations updating their lease templates, in addition to the broad support and positive feedback we received from a wide range of stakeholders. We continue to push to get our lease in the hands of every small landlord who could use it.”

An important part of the Philadelphia Fair Lease Project’s ultimate success was the team’s concerted efforts to demonstrate that this tool would be good for small landlords across the city.

“The model lease will make their lives easier,” Lutz said. “It will improve relationships with tenants and is far better than anything a landlord would find for free online.”

In addition to the model lease, the Philadelphia Fair Lease Project also provides resources for landlords and tenants, such as a free checklist for lease addenda and FAQs to help landlords and tenants understand their rights and responsibilities.

“We want more people in the city to be aware of the model lease, landlords and tenants” Underwood said. “We’re looking for opportunities to spread the word as much as we can. I would love to see either City Council or the Mayor’s office champion this and help inform more landlords about this important resource.”

Learn more about Hoffman’s groundbreaking research on residential leases.