Chaka Fattah Jr. thought the sunlit loft apartment north of Center City that he saw advertised for short stays would be the perfect place to spend a week getting his head together as he resumed his life as a free man, resonant of the posh quarters he enjoyed before serving time in prison
Too bad, the hotel didn’t see the former congressman’s son as a suitable guest.
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“Our system cross-references all publicly available information and your booking was flagged,” the hotel’s operator wrote in an April 26 email shared with The Inquirer. “I highly suggest that you do not try to book with us again as we will not be able to host you in the future, either.”
Within a week, San-Francisco-based Sonder Corp. reversed course and accepted Fattah’s reservation, after The Inquirer contacted the firm. Still, his experience with Sonder, one in a new breed of hospitality start-ups that offer furnished apartments for hotel-length stays, marks a late plot twist in the legal saga surrounding the 37-year-old, who was imprisoned for almost four years on bank- and tax-fraud convictions.
It also raises new questions about how regulations concerning housing discrimination apply to Sonder and its competitors, which walk a line between apartment landlord and hotelier, said Angela McIver, chief executive of the Fair Housing Rights Center in Southeastern Pennsylvania, a legal aid group.
Although it’s unclear whether Fattah’s civil rights were violated, Sonder’s actions were, at the very least, “bad PR,” she said. “They failed miserably in how they handled this."
A Sonder spokesperson declined to comment on Fattah’s situation.
Fattah, who no longer uses the name Chip, was released from prison in December after a 46-month sentence for bilking banks, taxpayers, and clients out of more than $1 million, and for playing a role in swindling the Philadelphia School District out of hundreds of thousands of dollars through his position with a for-profit education firm.
His father, former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, is serving a 10-year prison sentence on an unrelated conviction for stealing federal grant funds, charitable donations, and campaign cash to pay personal and political expenses. His lawyers have declined to say whether he is pursuing early release due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The terms of Fattah Jr.'s release placed him under house arrest for about six months at his childhood home in Overbrook, where his mother still lives. He was permitted to leave for his work at a prisoner-reentry nonprofit in Germantown, and for occasional restaurant meals.
Since late March, however, Fattah and his mother, Michelle Wingfield, have also been confined to their rowhouse together almost full time by government stay-at-home mandates aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus.
With Fattah’s home-confinement period scheduled to end on May 6, he went looking for whatever getaway he could muster amid the pandemic lock-down orders.
On a friend’s recommendation, he checked out a two-bedroom apartment on Sonder’s website that the company was renting in the Heid building, a recently renovated former hat factory near 13th and Callowhill Streets. The haberdasher was a Frank P. Heid, hence the current name.
Fattah said the view through the Heid’s big, industrial-style windows would remind him of his past life as a Center City resident, when he lived in a string of nice places that included, for a time, the Residences at the Ritz-Carlton near City Hall.
Even better, Sonder was aggressively promoting its properties for use by locals with deep discounts to recoup some of the loss of its customary tourist and business-traveler clientele during the pandemic.
One recent Sonder ad seen on Facebook pitches the company’s units as “Temporary housing near you.”
“I thought it would be a good opportunity to clear my head and spend some time alone to think about my future plans,” Fattah said. “Basically this would have been — since I can’t go on vacation — like a vacation in Philadelphia."
Fattah first booked himself a five-night stay with a debit card, starting two days after the end of his home-confinement, then texted Sonder’s customer-service department a few hours later to extend his reservation for a full week.
It was soon after that that he received an email and a text message from Sonder that his booking had been canceled.
“I am just reaching out to let you know that we have reviewed the details of your account, and unfortunately we will not be able to host you,” Sonder wrote in the email.
Fattah responded with a message, sent directly to Sonder chief executive Francis Davidson, acknowledging that he had a past “legal issue which dealt with some tax under-reporting and other paperwork issues.”
But, he continued, "I don’t think I pose any safety issue for any guest, and do not really understand why my reservation was canceled.”
Days later, he spoke with a customer-service agent who told him that his booking had been flagged twice: Once because the home address he provided was local to the property where he wanted to stay, and again because of his payment method.
Those reasons seemed disingenuous, he told The Inquirer after contacting the newspaper to complain about his treatment, since Sonder is actively advertising its apartments to local residents, and Fattah said his debit-card payments cleared.
He heard nothing further from Sonder until Monday, when a representative with the company called hours after it had been contacted by an Inquirer reporter concerning Fattah’s reservation. The representative invited him to renew his booking and offered him a cash voucher to apply to the stay, Fattah said.
The representative said Fattah’s reservation was originally rejected because the company was still refining its rules for in-town reservations, which are meant to keep local guests from booking apartments for parties, but did not address any issues with his payment method.
“It’s very possible that they’re using these two explanations to get around that they did a background check and don’t want me to stay there,” Fattah said last week, before he was cleared to book the apartment.
He said Monday that he intends to stay there, after all.
McIver, from the Fair Housing Rights Center, said landlords may reject applicants because of their criminal records, but only if they do so consistently. Since it accommodates guests for long-terms stays as well as shorter ones, Sonder may be bound by the same rules that apply to landlords, she said.
If Sonder had singled out Fattah for a criminal-background check because of his existing notoriety, or if it treated him differently from others subjected to background probes, she said, it may have run afoul of federal regulations governing how landlords can conduct criminal checks.
Sonder advises guests on its website that it “may engage with a vendor to verify your criminal history.”