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How can Philly enforce building codes when 40,000 rental properties don’t have licenses?

Here's a problem for city officials trying to enforce building codes: how to hold landlords operating off the books accountable when you don’t know who they are.

Sabrina Cooke, left, and Sierra Robinson stand for a portrait in front of the West Philadelphia home where Robinson is now staying. The two friends both lived nearly a decade in the Admiral Court apartments in West Philadelphia, but were forced out after the landlord, who was unlicensed and could not legally evict tenants had the doors locked Monday.
Sabrina Cooke, left, and Sierra Robinson stand for a portrait in front of the West Philadelphia home where Robinson is now staying. The two friends both lived nearly a decade in the Admiral Court apartments in West Philadelphia, but were forced out after the landlord, who was unlicensed and could not legally evict tenants had the doors locked Monday.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Sierra Robinson woke up early Monday morning to pounding on her door. The building she’d lived in for nearly eight years was about to be locked, security told her. She had five minutes to grab what she could and leave.

Frantically, Robinson started tossing her belongings out her fourth-story window: clothing, a small radio, pots and pans.

“Once the police came and we went downstairs, there was no way to get back in,” Robinson said. “They told us if we tried to get back in, we were going to jail. I was like, ‘Seriously? When you came in, you saw my refrigerator, my couch, my kitchen ... my bed, it’s all still there, I live there.' ”

Robinson was one of about 20 people locked out that day. She had plenty of notice that the property managers wanted her gone from the apartment she shared with her fiance, two brothers, and niece. An initial notice that the building would close had arrived in April. But she considered it an empty threat. She knew the building had no rental license — that expired in 2015. And without a license, she couldn’t be evicted.

“By legal right, that’s still my apartment," she said. “If ya’ll didn’t evict me from there, it’s still my house."

While that is the law in Philadelphia — no rental license, no eviction — the building closed Monday all the same, and Robinson moved in with her mom, who is also housing six other family members.

SBG Management oversees more than a dozen properties in the city, at least half of which do not have active rental licenses, city records show. As Philadelphia aims to crack down on illegal lock-outs and negligent landlords, it’s also reckoning with a major blind spot: Close to 40,000 rental properties are unlicensed.

The owner of SBG, Phillip Pulley, said the city makes it nearly impossible to get and hold on to those licenses, given that a property needs to be violation-free to qualify. He said tenants withhold rent in properties they know are unlicensed, making it difficult to keep up with repairs.

Tenants-rights lawyers say SBG and other unlicensed landlords should know the rules and play by them. The rules are in place for a reason — to prevent housing stock from falling into disrepair and tenants from living in squalid conditions.

“Phillip Pulley and his management company ... own hundreds of rental units in the Philadelphia area," said Rachel Garland, an attorney with Community Legal Services who has been working with tenants in Admiral and Dorset. " All landlords, but especially sophisticated businessmen, such as Mr. Pulley, should know the basic licensing and eviction procedures and adhere to them.”

In Philadelphia, courts recently started requiring proof of a rental license to file an eviction, which has caused an uptick in illegal lock-outs, Garland said.

“Some landlords are choosing to comply and some are trying to find backdoor means or using intimidation tactics to get tenants out," she said.

In all, the city estimates 20 percent of the 260,000 rental units are unlicensed. That presents a tricky problem to officials trying to enforce building codes: How can they hold landlords operating off the books accountable when they don’t know who they are?

“To be clear, that 40,000, they run the gamut," said Rebecca Swanson, planning director of the city’s Department of Licenses & Inspections. "From somebody who just has a house and moves to the suburbs and doesn’t want to sell yet and it’s a beautiful house that they keep up ... all the way down to our slumlords who own a ton of properties and are purposefully flouting the law.”

Swanson said L&I is working with Peco to get lists of properties with multiple meters, which usually indicates a rental building. They can cross-check that list with licenses on file.

The city also plans to target landlords who own several unlicensed properties under multiple LPs or LLCs. Previously, matching up who owned what has been difficult, but Swanson said a new data system and pending legislation could make it easier.

“This is the first time the city has been able to do this and we think this is going to be really effective in holding landlords accountable and being a deterrent," she said. “The challenge to the department is, making all these people get rental licenses isn’t going to turn them into great landlords, but it will at least require them to address outstanding violations."

What becomes of the twin brick buildings, Admiral and Dorset Court, remains to be seen. Pulley said his instructions were to clear it, fix some windows, and secure the area. It’s blocks away from new luxury apartment buildings.

The weeks leading up to its closure were grim. Nearly a dozen tenants interviewed said water and gas were shut off intermittently, including right before Thanksgiving. Locks were removed from doors, and several residents said they were burglarized.

“Honestly, last month was a battle to keep control of the facility,” Pulley said. “We had squatters, people stealing stoves and copper pipes.”

Sabrina Cooke, who lived in Admiral, blamed security hired by SBG for stealing two TVs and her teenage son’s sneakers from her apartment. Pulley blames squatters. She said tenants banded together to break into the basement and turn the water back on the day before Thanksgiving. “It was horrible. They treated us like we were nothing, tried everything to get us to leave.”

SBG’s buildings in Fern Rock, Mantua, Mount Airy, and Poplar are also unlicensed, L&I records show. A Germantown apartment building, Marchwood Apartments, has a license but a slew of violations including electrical, plumbing, property maintenance and fire code issues.

Pulley said he is not wantonly ignoring needed repairs at buildings with outstanding violations. He said some tenants intentionally destroy property and then call L&I in an attempt to get a licenses revoked or to keep an owner from getting a license. If a landlord doesn’t have a license, tenants can withhold rent (although the tenant is supposed to put the rent in escrow).

“This is tenant-driven,” Pulley said. “In the lower rental rate properties, it’s a systematic problem. You can’t keep up fast enough with these repairs.”

(Some of the violations are for problems that a single tenant would be hard-pressed to create himself, like building-wide heating and plumbing issues.)

Pulley also disputes that his company forced people out. He said he found apartments for about 30 tenants in other SBG buildings and referenced a court order, settled with seven tenants, that required them to be out by Nov 30.

The order does not mention anything about other tenants in the building.

“I’m the lightning bolt. Everybody hates Phil Pulley," he said. “I’ve got people yelling at me, but the fact is, I rent to people convicted of felonies. ... I rent to people with terrible credit. I think there’s a major problem in the city and there has to be better dialogue between everyone to fix this system. The system is broken.”