2020 is finally coming to an end--and not soon enough.

This year forced us to confront the barriers between so many of us in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania and our most fundamental needs and basic rights. We were reminded of how much we depend on one another. We could not ignore rifts in a social safety net that failed to protect millions of families. And the Black Lives Matter movement once again brought America's legacy of racism and segregation to the forefront of our national conscience.

When the pandemic hit, we at the Public Interest Law Center resolved to keep fighting against entrenched injustices and new challenges that were sure to come. Thanks to supporters like you, we turned that resolve into action.

Your donation today will help us keep this work going in 2021 and beyond.

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Renters United Philadelphia members protest unsafe housing on March 7_ 2020
Renters United Philadelphia members protest unsafe housing on March 7, 2020

RUP presented MCM Management Solutions with a Non-Renewal Notice for Absentee Landlords at an action on December 19_ 2020
RUP presented MCM Management Solutions with a Non-Renewal Notice for Absentee Landlords at an action on December 19, 2020

This year, we fully realized Renters United / Inquilinxs en la Lucha Philadelphia (RUP). Before and after COVID-19 hit, the renters who formed the first RUP chapter, based in Frankford, stood up for stable and safe housing, demanding that their landlord address pest infestations and stop arbitrary rent increases and fees. "Everyone is living under the pressure of COVID-19, but the landlord doesn't care," said RUP leader Nerva Nicolas at a recent action protesting a spike in non-renewal notices. "That's why we created this organization, because together we can fight back. Together we can do something."

We also joined tenant advocates across Philadelphia to push for an eviction moratorium and other protections, and fought back against illegal lockouts when landlords tried to evade the law and force renters out.

Our client Sekwan Merritt
Our client Sekwan Merritt
As businesses across the country closed their doors last spring, federal government policy denied aid to thousands of business owners with criminal histories who were trying to pay their employees. In June, after months of advocacy, we sued the agency responsible for this policy, the Small Business Administration (SBA), in federal court on behalf of two business owners and non-profit Defy Ventures. We demanded that the SBA remove these arbitrary restrictions, which were found nowhere in the law authorizing the emergency aid and harmed entire communities.  

The impact of policies like these fall hardest on Black and Brown communities who experience the effects of our criminal justice system's glaring racial disparities. Due to widespread barriers to employment, people with past criminal records often start their own businesses, and many of these businesses--like our client Sekwan Merritt's Lightning Electric--seek to provide a second chance to workers with records. "Sitting in that cell, I said 'I'm going to provide opportunities for people,'" Mr. Merritt said. "I wanted to be that role model." On June 24, responding to our suit with ACLU and the Washington Lawyers' Committee, SBA changed its rules, greatly expanding eligibility, and on June 29, the Court ruled that the restrictions were arbitrary, capricious and unlawful.

Our legal director Mimi McKenzie speaks at a press conference announcing our challenge to firearm preemption laws
Our legal director Mimi McKenzie speaks at a press conference announcing our challenge to firearm preemption laws
2020 was the worst year for gun violence in Philadelphia since the mid-1990s. Homicides are up 40 percent from last year, and nearly 200 children have been shot. These every day tragedies are concentrated in low-income neighborhoods, and more than 80 percent of shooting victims are Black. We must use every available tool, including the law, to take on this crisis.

But for decades, Harrisburg politicians have tied the hands of local government, preventing desperate lawmakers from even trying evidence-backed local solutions, all while the legislature refuses to take action on the state level. In October, we joined the City of Philadelphia to sue the Pennsylvania General Assembly and challenge these state firearm preemption laws. Our clients are Philadelphians and others who have lost family members in shootings. "Letting Philadelphia pass gun safety laws is about recognizing the humanity of people in this City who face gun violence," our client Stanley Crawford said. "Because right now, the lack of action and the lack of urgency is absolutely inhumane." The case, an initiative of Richard Berkman & Toni Seidl Health Care Justice Project, is ongoing.

The Williamsport PA federal courthouse
The Williamsport PA federal courthouse
2020 was the year we took on the urgent need to protect the right to vote in Pennsylvania through our Jeffrey Golan & Frances Vilella-VĂ©lez Voting Justice Project. One by one, we took on a drumbeat of threats and misinformation and used litigation to make sure voters had tools like drop-boxes to cast their ballots safely during a global pandemic.

One example was a federal lawsuit filed by Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. in the Middle District of Pennsylvania against Pennsylvania's Secretary of State. The suit asked the court to block the Secretary from certifying every single one of Pennsylvania's seven million votes over, at most, good-faith differences in the way counties administered their elections. The case did not even allege, let alone prove, that a single fraudulent ballot was cast or counted. We fought back against this attack on our democracy, intervening on behalf of eight voters and a broad coalition of civil rights organizations.

"A denial of my vote would tell that I'm not an equal citizen of the United States, that my voice doesn't matter," said our client Meril Lara, who cast a provisional ballot after she was told that her mail-in ballot was missing its inner envelope.

After we traveled to Williamsport for an in-person oral argument, the federal judge dismissed the case, a ruling which was upheld unanimously by a three judge panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

At the dawn of 2021, we already have our work cut out for us. We will closely monitor the next round of state and federal redistricting for signs of any form of gerrymandering. And soon, we will have a schedule for a long-awaited trial in our case challenging Pennsylvania's inadequate and unequal school funding system. Follow all the latest developments and learn how you can get involved at FundOurSchoolsPA.org.

None of this would be possible without our supporters and friends. And this year, that support means even more. Your tax-deductible donation today will help us head into 2021 ready for whatever challenges the year throws our way.

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Here's hoping that 2021 brings us one step closer to a city and Commonwealth where no one is denied the fundamental resources that we all need to build our lives: a safe home and neighborhood, a quality public education for our children, or a voice at the ballot box. 

Thank you and Happy New Year!

Jennifer R. Clarke
Executive Director

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