Fair leases in Philadelphia

Law professor David Hoffman and a team of Penn Carey Law students have 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.

Philadelphia cityscape and skyline.
Image: iStock/ChrisBoswell

That research by David Hoffman, William A. Schnader Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, and Anton Strezhnev, assistant professor at the 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.

The team studied more than 100,000 private leases in Philadelphia and found that a growing proportion were form leases—internet forms and templates developed by landlord organizations—and that they contain a lot of terms that are unenforceable.

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 so lucky to work with this team,” says 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.”

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 explains. “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.”

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.

Read more at Penn Carey Law.