A group of housing activists, accompanied by one of City Council’s new progressive members, rallied at City Hall on Thursday to demand protections for renters and homeowners as gentrification forces make housing increasingly unaffordable.
“City Council, you have a choice to make a stand with us and not let racism and classism win in our city,” said Francisca Martinez, one of the speakers, a mother of three who was evicted from her rented rowhouse in North Philadelphia last month.
Carrying signs promoting housing equity, about 50 protesters from One PA, a statewide racial and economic justice advocacy group, marched from 21st and Chestnut Streets to City Hall, where they were met by Kendra Brooks. The councilmember from the Working Families Party began her term last month calling for hearings on rent controls, and she reiterated her support for that policy Thursday.
“Profit-driven development has created a crisis that has displaced long-term Philadelphians,” she said, “many of whom are one catastrophe away from eviction or foreclosure.”
The group issued a report Thursday highlighting inequities faced by renters and homeowners in Philadelphia. These include poorly maintained rental properties and predatory landlords who raise rents and evict tenants arbitrarily. For longtime homeowners in redeveloping neighborhoods, skyrocketing property values can bump up taxes by thousands of dollars in a few years.
“We are calling on City Council to prioritize tenants and homeowners over the greed of corporate landlords and the financial industry," the report stated.
One PA put forward two proposals for discussion in City Council: universal rent control and protections for homeowners who have fallen behind on their property-tax payments due to sudden tax increases.
About 20,000 evictions are filed in Philadelphia each year, the fourth-highest number among American cities. Meanwhile, tenants can find their rents suddenly soaring beyond what they can afford as their neighborhoods gentrify. Brooks noted that about half of Philadelphia renters already spend 30% of their incomes on rent, and a third pay 50%.
“The problem of increasing rents affects people whether you’re making $10,000 up to $100,000,” Brooks said.
The city has some protections for renters, including a requirement that landlords have “good cause” before evicting someone on a month-to-month lease, and free legal counsel to tenants who are evicted. But there are still cases where sudden evictions have been followed by buildings being torn down or renovated to make way for more lucrative tenants.
What form rent control might take in the city is unclear. One PA is proposing the creation of a board to evaluate all rental properties citywide and determine reasonable annual rent increases.
“Rent control is primarily to help residents stay in their homes,” said Eli Ditulli, a researcher for the Center for Popular Democracy, which advocates for progressive social policies and collaborated with One PA on the report. “It is one really powerful tool that needs to be part of a larger suite of tools to increase affordable housing units.”
One Pa also is asking that interest and fees on unpaid back taxes be eliminated and debt capped at 10% of a home’s assessed value. As development has come to Philadelphia neighborhoods, property values have skyrocketed, with property taxes for longtime owners rising by thousands of dollars in a few years.
“Our demands are to have hearings around the renters’ crisis, hearings around the homeowners’ crisis,” said Shakiya Canty, One PA’s lead organizer in Philadelphia. “It may be the case that there is a different solution that is stronger.”
Martinez, who spoke at Thursday’s demonstration, is homeless, she said, after her landlord cut water and power last month in a North Philadelphia rowhouse she was renting for $700 a month. Two of her three children are staying with her sister, she said. She had complained about the condition of her building, she said, and her landlord retaliated against her.