Dozens of residents in two West Philadelphia apartment buildings received letters April 9 telling them to move out by April 30, when the doors would be locked and utilities shut off. The letter said the city was ordering the landlord to cease operations.
The city, however, said Tuesday that it issued no such order. The owner needs the tenants out because he is selling the buildings, Admiral Court and Dorsett Court, at 48th and Locust Streets, according to an attorney for SBG management company, which maintains the properties.
Rachel Garland, an attorney with Community Legal Services, said that what happened was unlawful. “Eviction is a legal process,” she said. “A landlord cannot shut down a building, lock the doors, or shut off utilities without going through this legal process and obtaining a court order.”
CLS is working with about 70 tenants who are scrambling to determine what rights they have to stay beyond the next six days and where to resettle in a neighborhood where affordable housing options are growing scarce amid new development.
“Since I got that letter, I can’t sleep,” said Fatoumata Gamby, 38, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Admiral Court with her three kids under 10. “I thought it was a joke. If I have to move, so be it, but don’t give me 21 days to move with three kids. It’s unrealistic. It’s a nightmare.”
The four-story brick buildings have 105 apartments, though tenants interviewed estimate only about 30 percent of the units are vacant. Residents are mostly low-income families, paying below-market rent. The apartments were last sold in 2005 and have fallen into disrepair. The city demanded certain fixes in January and then sued owners in March for failure to attend to broken windows and doors, restore heat to certain units, and make electrical and plumbing repairs. A court date is set for May 8.
“The reality is the owner can no longer sustain the debt on the building because the tenants are not paying,” said Donna Ross, a lawyer for SBG. “There’s an an enormous amount of tenant debt and tenant damage. We are working tirelessly to try and accommodate people by the 30th.”
Ross said the owner, Phillip Pulley, had an agreement of sale but would not disclose the name of the buyer nor the plan for the buildings.
“They would have preferred not to be in this situation, but an opportunity has come up,” Ross said.
Residents covered by Section 8 have received emergency vouchers to relocate. SBG has given tenants options to rent where they have vacancies in other buildings, though some are farther away and more expensive.
City records show neither Admiral Court Realty Co. nor Dorsett Court Realty Co. have had a rental license since 2015. The owner is also missing certificates of rental suitability, documents typically needed to formally evict tenants. (The owners have not filed any evictions with the city.)
The apartment also has repeated L&I violations. In October 2017 a fire at Dorsett Court tipped the city off to issues inside, including inoperable fire alarms, rats, and mold.
Affordable housing in the area is scarce, given the influx in high-rise, luxury apartments including the former West Philadelphia High School building and two Post Brothers developments: Garden Court apartments at 47th and Pine, and the Apple Lofts at 52nd and Baltimore. Some of the Victorian single-family houses along Locust Street have also been converted into multifamily homes.
“There’s a lot of demand for high-quality housing in that neighborhood,” said Matthew Pestronk, cofounder of Post Brothers. “As other parts of the city are becoming really expensive, developers are going there and doing decent housing, people want to rent there. It’s got a lot going for it.”
Juanita Rodriguez, a tenant in Dorsett Court, worries what comes next. She fears having to travel farther for her dialysis, now only a few blocks away. Jeffrey Barnes, who grew up in the neighborhood, doesn’t have the money to move and expects whatever happens he’ll be leaving most of his belongings behind.
For Gamby, who works as a phlebotomist at a Center City lab, the $725-a-month apartment is the best she can afford in a neighborhood she doesn’t want to leave. Two of her kids go to Henry C. Lea Elementary School next door. Gamby could pay up to $900 a month but can’t find three bedrooms in that price range. She said SBG has offered her a two-bedroom in Germantown that is about double her current rent.
She keeps the place tidy and recently repainted.
“My kids know something’s going on,” Gamby said. “They’re like, ‘Mommy are we poor?’ I’m like, ‘Honey we’ve never been rich, but we’re going to be OK.’ And I just try to believe that.”
A previous version of this article inaccurately reported that the two buildings were still receiving low-income housing tax credits. The credits expired in 1997.