When Tyler Shaide and Sophia DiLorenzo came across the Facebook listing for an apartment for rent in North Philadelphia, it felt like a breath of fresh air.

After struggling with rent payments and moving out of their previous unit last month, the couple had found the Moscow & Monica apartment complex. Its new units could be leased month to month, property manager Frank Sanders told them, and didn’t require a credit check.

“He said it was a Black-owned business looking to help people out who have poor credit scores,” said DiLorenzo, 25. “We thought we found somewhere we can let the dust settle, continue to work on ourselves and our stability, get our credit up.”

They met Sanders at the building and agreed to rent a one-bedroom unit. Because the complex was new, Sanders said he was finalizing the lease with his boss, but would send it over right away. They gave Sanders a $750 security deposit, and moved in Feb. 20 without signing a lease.

Just a week after settling in, the couple returned home to find the building’s owner, Gagandeep Lakhmna, in the lobby. He wanted to know who they were and why they were living in his complex.

Sanders had allegedly hidden more than a dozen tenants’ occupancy from his boss and had been pocketing their rent payments.

Now, Lakhmna, a developer with projects across Philadelphia and Los Angeles, has filed a lawsuit against the residents and is using illegal lockout practices to try to evict them, saying they are not legal tenants and accusing them of conspiring with Sanders. This week, a new building manager deactivated residents’ key fobs and turned off some units’ heat, electricity, and water.

State and city housing laws prohibit self-help eviction, or landlords taking action to remove tenants without court approval, like changing locks and shutting off utilities. Additionally, Philadelphia’s eviction moratorium remains in place through March, which, with a few exceptions, prohibits the physical removal of tenants.

“Any practice that would displace a tenant that is not through the courts is illegal,” said Mary Beth Schluckebier, staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Center.

The tenants made verbal agreements with Sanders, and paid him to live there. Even though most tenants did not sign leases, oral leases of up to three years are legal agreements in Pennsylvania, and provide tenants with the same housing protections as written ones, said Schluckebier.

Even though the verbal agreement was made with Sanders and not Lakhmna, Schluckebier says the tenants should still be protected.

”There’s some nuance, but it’s an on-site property manager who, from the tenants’ perspective, had apparent, and truly, very likely actual legal authority to be making leases with people,” Schluckebier said. “The reality is, tenants sign leases with property managers all the time.”

In a statement through lawyer Dan Auerbach of Gamburg & Benedetto, the complex said: “Without our knowledge, the Moscow & Monica’s former property manager Frank Sanders allowed people to occupy apartments without a valid lease contrary to our policies. He put their payments in his own pocket. He lied to those he took money from and took advantage of all of us. To protect our tenants, we had no choice but to restrict access to the apartments to only tenants and their guests. We are working to resolve this matter with the help of law enforcement.”

Lakhmna did not respond to additional questions.

Sanders, who began working for the building in May 2020, and was fired from a previous property-management job for “bad work habits,” did not respond to Facebook messages, calls, or texts.

The scheme

The Moscow & Monica apartments, just west of Fishtown, present themselves as the epitome of modern living: white exteriors, floor-to-ceiling windows, and pop art in the lobby, with 125 units ranging from studios to three bedrooms that cost between $1,200 to $2,500 per month. But there are flaws: an unfinished storefront on one building littered with paint cans and debris, and insulation bursting from a dented wall.

On Tuesday, at least 10 distraught tenants gathered in the lobby, desperate to know why they no longer had access to their homes. Some were attempting to break down their doors to have a place to sleep.

Most tenants found the apartments on affordable-housing Facebook groups or Instagram pages. Sanders said if they had bad credit, they could pay a higher security deposit, they said. He urged residents to pay more up-front, and the residents, some desperate for housing, complied.

Nydaijah Clark moved in Feb. 5, and paid Sanders $4,500 to cover two months’ rent plus security. Chris Frank moved in Oct. 15 and has paid Sanders a total of $7,600 in rent.

Sanders pocketed all of it, Lakhmna’s lawsuit alleges, and his social media posts show he and other individuals also publicized vacant units as Airbnb-style short-term rentals, and music video and party venues.

Lakhmna grew suspicious after noticing a number of vacancies at the complex, the lawsuit says. When he went to the complex on Feb. 27, and confronted Sanders, Sanders “admitted the substance of these allegations and then left.”

No criminal charges have been filed against anyone involved.

In the lawsuit against the tenants, Lakhmna argues they “could be a danger” or “may have committed crimes,” despite having no evidence. He suggests that the residents were in on the scheme.

The tenants denied engaging in criminal activity, and said they were unaware of what Sanders was doing.

Lakhmna has told tenants anything they paid Sanders is void. When he visited the building last weekend, he told Shaide and DiLorenzo they had to pay $4,200 — two months’ rent, plus security — within an hour, or he would kick them out.

Shaide was scared and desperate to stay, so he paid. His bank account went into overdraft. A few days later, Lakhmna had named Shaide and five others as defendants in a lawsuit to evict them.

“The fallout of a landlord’s broken business model is not the tenant’s burden to bear,” said Schluckebier.

Shaide has contacted the Philly Tenants Union for help, and the group said it’s looking into the issue. Tenants have called the police, but responding officers said there was little they could do.

Due to eviction moratoriums, some landlords who would have evicted tenants through the courts are turning to aggressive tactics: changing locks, disconnecting utilities, removing doors, and blocking entrances.

» READ MORE: Black Philadelphia renters face eviction at more than twice the rate of white renters

Because lockouts are illegal, gathering statistics on them is difficult, and while they have always been a problem, area housing advocates said they’ve seen an increase during the pandemic. Tenants “on the margins of the housing market” are most often affected, Schluckebier said, like immigrants, formerly incarcerated people, and a group that’s also most likely to be legally evicted: Black mothers and their children.

A checkered past

Sanders worked as a leasing agent and property-management staffer at the Marine Club condo building South Philadelphia for about a year before being fired in 2019 for “bad work habits and a lack of productivity,” said the building’s developer, Eric Blumenfeld. He filed inaccurate paperwork and sloppy accounting statements, failed to follow up on tenant concerns, and at times did not show up to work, Blumfield said.

He started as a property manager with GreenPointe LLC, Lakhmna’s construction and property management firm, last May.

A company co-owned by Lakhmna was behind a string of unfinished condo and townhouse projects that faced foreclosure during the Great Recession.

» READ MORE: Gaps in Black and white home ownership transcend a booming market and threaten to leave some behind

In the mid-2010s, Lakhmna’s companies built and sold rowhouses in and near Fishtown. He appears to be currently active in Los Angeles, where he has registered several real estate businesses in recent years.

But the tenants of the Moscow & Monica didn’t know any of this.

Annette Pugh waited for hours in the lobby, hoping to find some help for her grandson, a tenant.

She told him to sit in his unit to avoid getting locked out.

“You already know we’ve been scammed,” she said of Lakhmna. “Why aren’t you on our side?”

Staff writer Michaelle Bond contributed to this article.