Bill would make landlords give six months' notice of major renovations

Tenants in Philadelphia would be entitled to six months’ notice before their apartment building could be converted into more costly rentals under an ordinance proposed in City Council on Thursday.

Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. introduced the legislation after hearing from residents of a Wynnefield apartment high-rise who have until Thursday to leave the building, which is going through a $40 million renovation.

Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. at a City Council meeting last month. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff  Photographer

The 231-unit Penn Wynne House on Bryn Mawr Avenue is home to many renters who rely on housing assistance, including elderly tenants and veterans, Jones said. A retired schoolteacher who had lived in the building for 32 years met with him recently, prompting the legislation.

“They decided the property was undervalued, that if they put some money in it they could command better rents, so they said, you’re out of there,” Jones said. “This is not an isolated instance. As Philadelphia experiences a renaissance, speculators look at this as an opportunity to gentrify, and I think it’s wrong. I understand the profit principle of capitalism, but there needs to be a process by which people are relocated as opposed to summarily dismissed.”

Currently, renters are typically entitled to whatever notice the lease they sign specifies, said Rasheedah Phillips, an attorney at Community Legal Services. For some people, that could be as little as 30 days or no notice at all.

“It’s pretty liberal. A landlord could put anything in the lease agreement and they have the upper hand in terms of bargaining power,” Phillips said. “Having a law that says you have to give a certain amount of notice, it does help because, again, every lease agreement can be treated differently.”

More time to find housing — particularly affordable housing — is important in situations such as  in Wynnefield, where an entire building full of people is simultaneously looking for homes in the neighborhood.

“If you’re putting out 200 people who have subsidy and they have to go out and find 200 units in a market where there’s a lack of affordable housing available, you are really putting people in a very difficult situation,” Phillips said.

The ordinance would pertain only to buildings with three units or more. Notification would be required in the case of a major renovation, defined as work that affects at least 25 percent of units. Tenants would also need to be notified via certified letter if the general use of the property changes, such as if a building shifts from private rentals to a major lease with a university.

The ordinance is facing some pushback. Victor Pinckney Sr., first vice president of the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia, said the law would unfairly hamstring business owners.

“There’s no way we’d be for anything like this,” Pinckney said. “That’s a six-month hold on a deal that might have already taken a year to put together. And any lease in place already has to be honored.”

Pinckney said the rule would prevent building owners from selling if offered a good deal with fewer than 60 days to commit. Pinckney, who owns 16 buildings and about 40 units in the city, recalled an offer he got for one of his buildings in 2007.

“Prior to the housing collapse, when things were heating up in Temple, we had no intention of selling. A guy came in and offered us six times what we’d paid for the place,” he said. “That was a situation — and there are other cases — where the owner may not have the option of waiting. He has a buyer there with cash in hand.”