Why 1 in 14 Philly renters faces eviction every year

Linda Watson covers her nose because she can’t stand the smell after sewage backed up into the basement of the house she is renting in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. Watson’s landlord sent her an eviction notice after she withheld rent due to the conditions.

The rowhouse in Port Richmond looked promising, with three bedrooms, new floors, and a small white porch out front. After having moved three times in 15 months, Linda Watson hoped she’d found some stability there with her 21-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son.

But come late October, the heat didn’t work. It wasn’t fixed for three cold months this winter, despite her repeated calls to the property managers for GoodHomes215 LLC, Watson said. (An attorney for the landlord did not return calls for this article, though court records show both parties later agreed to address the described repairs.) Watson bought four space heaters, driving her electricity bill up over $1,000. Then, sewer water started seeping into the basement. The family stopped paying rent.

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Linda Watson holds a picture from when the basement of her rental home flooded with sewage.

The eviction notice arrived in February.

Watson is one of more than 20,000 people who will have eviction proceedings filed against them in Philadelphia in a typical year. That’s nearly 1 in 14 renters. About half of them will be put out of their homes. With aging housing stock, rising rental costs, and a lack of affordable units, evictions have become a national crisis, more widely acknowledged since the publication of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Princeton University sociologist Matthew Desmond.

“I’m sure I’m not the only one going through this,” Watson said this week, still in her home as her case is pending in court. “I stopped paying to get him to pay attention to me. But then he turns around and says: ‘You’re living there and you’re not paying. You can’t stay for free.’ ”

This month, Desmond’s Eviction Lab released the first national evictions database. Until then, evictions weren’t tracked in any meaningful way. Now cities including Philadelphia have started looking at their own numbers, which in some cases are startling.

Philadelphia ranks fourth in total number of evictions. While it ranks 81st out of the 100 biggest cities for its eviction rate, according to the Eviction Lab, in some low-income neighborhoods as many as 15 percent of residents will have proceedings filed against them. Nationally, about 70 percent of eviction notices go to women of color. A study by the Reinvestment Fund found a high correlation between African American neighborhoods and evictions here.

The Philadelphia numbers represent only evictions filed in court, not illegal lockouts.

Within the last year, the city has changed requirements for landlords looking to remove their tenants, proposed legislation to make it harder for landlords to discriminate against tenants, and created a task force, which just this week released 17 recommendations for Philadelphia.

“There’s been a definite sea change,” said Emily Dowdall of the Philadelphia Reinvestment Fund. “Before this data was available, people thought of evictions as stories that boiled down to bad tenants or bad landlords. But once you begin to see the scale of it, once you see it’s happening nationally, you see it’s not just some individual conflict but something structural or societal.”

Camera icon Philadelphia Reinvestment Fund
Annual eviction filings in Philadelphia by neighborhood.

Nearly half — 47 percent — of Philadelphians live in rental properties. Families are paying more for housing while money coming in remains largely flat. Landlords, meanwhile, often operate on slim economic margins and struggle to make building repairs.

Watson left an apartment in Port Richmond that was infested with rats. She moved into a shelter with her son to save money for a new place. Because Watson’s credit score was so low, the lease on the Port Richmond house is in the name of her daughter, Zakia Merrell. They pooled Social Security and Merrell’s salary at a day-care center to cover the $1,000 monthly rent.

Now Watson’s fighting to stay in the home with the help of an attorney from the Legal Help Center.

Michele Cohen, who’s worked with more than 3,000 families, most of them facing evictions, over 15 years, said this case “is not an uncommon experience for tenants who live at or near the poverty level.”

“Many people believe that low-income tenants do not pay their rent because of the lack of money,” Cohen said. “While this is often the case … in many of the families that I assist, the family legally withholds their rent because the landlord is refusing to make repairs.”

Watson is in the minority of tenants — about 8 percent — represented in the city’s landlord tenant court. Landlords have counsel about 81 percent of the time. One in three cases end in judgments for the landlord because the tenant doesn’t show up.

Regardless of the outcome of a proceeding, the filing stays on the Municipal Court docket, searchable by landlords, for the rest of a tenant’s life. The city’s Eviction Task Force has recommended all fillings and judgments be expunged after three years — except for those cases in which there is no judgment against tenants. Those should be expunged immediately, they wrote.

More legal aid

The city in January announced a $500,000. six-month commitment to improve access to legal representation to tenants. It’s modest compared with the $155 million New York City spends to provide counsel for any renter whose income falls at less than 200 percent of the poverty line.

Camera icon TIM TAI/Staff photographer
Community Legal Services attorney Barrett Marshall in the Widener Building in Center City. Marshall oversees the Landlord/Tenant Legal Help Center to offer legal advice to low-income tenants.

A court navigator circulates courtrooms to answer questions about the legal process. An attorney and a paralegal from Community Legal Services staff a Landlord/Tenant Help Center from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Mondays through Thursdays. They can accommodate nine people a day. A separate lawyer-for-a-day can advise five more people each day. There is usually a long waiting list for both.

These programs might not continue past July. The money, which city spokeswoman Ajeenah Amir described as a one-time increase, is not in next year’s budget. “We look forward to working with City Council through this year’s budget process,” she said.

Councilwoman Helen Gym, who pushed for the initiative, said she’s hoping the money is restored. “This is something that needs to be expanded, not just re-upped,” she said.

Changes to court procedures

In January, landlord tenant court started asking landlords to attach a proof of rental license and certificate of rental suitability to any eviction filing. Landlords who can’t prove that their dwelling is up to code or that they have a license to rent now have a tougher time evicting tenants or collecting back rent.

There is some evidence that the procedural change has cut down the number of evictions filed. In the first three months of 2018, such actions were down about 300 each month compared with the same months in 2016 and 2017, according to court data compiled by Philadelphia Legal Assistance.

Legislation

Landlords don’t need a reason to tell a tenant to leave once the lease has expired, and since so many people live on month-to-month leases, that can mean short notice for renters. City Council is considering a “just cause” eviction bill, which would require landlords to demonstrate why they are not renewing a lease or are evicting a tenant. It would not protect people who are priced out of their apartments after a landlord chooses to renovate and raise the rent or sell the building.

The Homeowners Association of Philadelphia (HAPCO), which represents landlords, opposes the bill.

“The majority of the evictions that are done in landlord tenant court are done for nonpayment of rent,” said Victor Pinckney, vice president of the organization. “People don’t have jobs. They need money, and the city is trying to turn landlords into a social service. The bottom line is, most of us who are in this business are in it to feed our families.”

Looking ahead

The draft report from the city Eviction Task Force this week makes 17 recommendations, including:

  • Low-interest loans for small landlords to make repairs.
  • A pre-complaint resolution process for tenants and landlords to come to agreements before an eviction is filed.
  • Increased legal representation for low-income tenants.
  • Working with the state legislature and Municipal Court to expunge eviction filings and judgments.

“If we’re evicting people in our city for less than $500 or $600 for rent and instead absorbing thousands and thousands of dollars in expending services to support these individuals, we have to know we can do it better,” said Gym, a task force member.

Watson and her daughter agreed in court to start paying rent, once the landlord makes the repairs. Meanwhile, the place is sparsely furnished, the walls mostly blank.

“When you move into a property, you don’t really know the situation,” she said. “We don’t know if the water’s going to leak, is the heat going to work? You can’t go stand on top of the roof. So you move in, and then things start to happen.”

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 19 news organizations producing “Broke in Philly,” a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.