For renters, among the worst-case scenarios is being evicted from your home, especially as the coronavirus pandemic continues. And while there are some protections in Philadelphia thanks to a new federal ban on evictions and a local moratorium on lockouts for some tenants seeking rental assistance, not everyone is safe.
Some landlords have pursued what is called a “self-help eviction,” or illegal lockout. Essentially, that’s an eviction that doesn’t follow the legal process that landlords have to remove tenants from their homes for things like nonpayment of rent or breaking terms of the lease. Staff at organizations like Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS) say they have seen illegal lockouts happening more and more.
“Because of the various eviction moratoriums that we’ve had during the pandemic, we’ve seen an increase in illegal evictions and self-help evictions,” says Vik Patel, a staff attorney with CLS’s housing unit. “On a pretty regular basis, I have to call landlords and say, ‘What you’re doing is illegal.’”
So, what makes a lockout illegal and what can you do if it happens to you? Here is what you need to know.
What is an illegal lockout?
An illegal lockout happens when landlords or one of their agents attempts to evict you without a court order. Even with a court order, landlords can’t lock you out themselves — in Philadelphia, only a landlord-tenant officer can do that and in other parts of Pennsylvania, it’s the local sheriff’s office.
“Your landlord can’t do a lockout,” Patel says. “If your landlord comes to do a lockout without the landlord-tenant officer, that in and of itself is illegal.”
Despite the name, an illegal lockout is “not just showing up and changing the locks,” Patel says. It can be a series of behaviors that a landlord takes to make a rental unit unlivable. According to the Philadelphia Code, those actions include:
”Plugging, changing, adding, or removing any lock” or otherwise blocking access to a property.
Removing windows or doors (this one is particularly common, Patel says).
Cutting off utilities such as electric, gas, water, heat, or telephone service.
Using force or threats to get you to leave.
If landlords do any of these things, it is considered a “class III offense,” and they can face significant fines. Patel adds that illegal lockouts also open up landlords to lawsuits that can include up to $2,000 in punitive damages per lockout attempt.
How do I know if I’m being locked out illegally?
To legally evict you, landlords need to go through a legal process that involves filing a complaint against you, winning in court, filing a writs of possession, and scheduling a lockout date. Overall, Patel says, it can take a number of months, and you will receive some notice throughout to ensure you’re informed.
The Philadelphia Municipal Court recently announced a halt on lockouts for tenants whose pending rental assistance applications are marked as “complete.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recently announced freeze on evictions for folks seeking government help may apply to you, too.
So, there’s a chance that your landlord can’t legally lock you out right now.
Still, it’s not always clear if a lockout is legal, but there are a few ways to verify what’s going on. PhillyTenant.org suggests checking the Philadelphia Municipal Court Electronic Filing System — or calling the court at 215-686-7334 — to see if your landlord followed the legal process.
Additionally, if you’re concerned that you may be locked out soon, Patel says that you can contact the Landlord Tenant Office by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. While they cannot tell you when exactly a legal lockout might happen, they should be able to tell you if one is coming, Patel says.
What should I do if I’m locked out illegally?
If you are comfortable doing so, you should call the police, Patel says. The Philadelphia Police Department currently has a directive that asks officers to “afford tenants a measure of adequate protection” against illegal lockouts, so they should be able to help.
An important note: You need to have proof of residency on you, such as a photo ID with the property’s address on it, or a utility bill or other mail in your name.
Often what happens, Patel says, is that type of proof gets locked inside the house, making it much more difficult to show you live there — most people don’t walk around carrying utility bills with them. So, try to plan ahead if you think an illegal lockout is coming.
If the police determine the lockout is illegal, they should tell your landlord to let you back in the property. They will not use force to get you back in, and are supposed to issue the landlord a citation if the landlord refuses.
“If the landlord refuses, the police generally won’t bash down the door or anything,” Patel says. “But often they will wait with the tenant if the tenant then calls a locksmith to let them back in.”
What if the police can’t or don’t help?
If you can prove you live in the property and the responding officer isn’t helping, Patel says that you should call the police again and ask for a supervisor to come to the scene. That supervisor may be more familiar with the self-help eviction directive and be able to offer more assistance.
If not, you may be able to get help a couple other ways.
You can contact the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the state Attorney General’s office at 800-441-2555. That may not necessarily help in the moment, Patel says, but it can be particularly useful if a landlord has done something like shut off your utilities.
You also may be able to get help by calling the Philly Tenant Hotline at 267-443-2500. That service, which is in part administered by CLS, should be able to provide advice, or possibly even step in and try to help resolve the situation — particularly if the landlord has an attorney.
Vik Patel, staff attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia’s housing unit.