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Giving landlords access to tenants’ bank accounts

To dwell in an apartment is to be free of snow shoveling but beholden to a company that raids your savings and invades your privacy.

To dwell in an apartment is to be free of snow shoveling but beholden to a company that raids your savings and invades your privacy.

How else to explain an appalling new national trend requiring tenants to provide access to their bank accounts as a condition of moving in or renewing a lease?

Under deceptively named "Direct Debit" policies, tenants' checking accounts become a corporation's ATM. God help folks who get paid erratically, since disappearing funds could trigger bounced checks or late fees when they pay other bills.

Fliers featuring a handsome man tapping away at a laptop are popping up in more than 5,000 mailboxes at the 19 high-end and affordable apartment buildings in the region owned by AIMCO, one of the country's largest rental players. Residents at Philadelphia's Park Towne Place, Center Square in Doylestown, and the Darby Townhouses in Sharon Hill are among those urged to "take the easy route!" before it's nonnegotiable. "Why wait?"

AIMCO intends to make relinquishing financial control mandatory for all 250,000 of its "residents" nationwide.

Resistance will be costly — first and last month's rent, plus a security deposit — since landlords can decline to renew a lease for any reason or none at all. The only recourse renters have is to move.

Live at your own risk

"Renters," Phil Lord likes to say, "are a forgotten people." And there are more of them than you think.

Nearly half of Philadelphians and roughly 20 percent of suburbanites do not own their homes. City renters represent the wealthiest and poorest citizens. Suburban tenants include middle-class families priced out of subdivisions.

Shirley Sobel, 74, has rented longer than I've been alive. She's lived at The Sterling, a 537-unit AIMCO high-rise, for 24 years — so long she remembers watching parades on the Ben Franklin Parkway from her living-room window, before skyscrapers blocked the view.

"I know there are people who go online to pay bills, but I don't," Sobel explains. Even if she did, transmitting the rent electronically through her bank would be her choice, a secure transaction on her time.

"To be forced to let a third-party take money out of your account every month? That's scary."

Especially because the rules of Direct Debit state that tenants use the system at their "own risk." They're liable for any "direct, indirect, incidental, consequential, punitive, special or exemplary damages," even those arising from computer viruses.

When green is mean?

Cindy Duffy, an AIMCO spokeswoman, downplays the draconian nature of Direct Debit, but acknowledges the company is mandating electronic payment nationwide.

"This is a convenience for our residents," Duffy insists, "one less thing for them to worry about."

Signing her name 12 times a year doesn't make Sobel fret. Under her first lease, she paid $1,060 "for everything." Today, she pays $2,039 plus whatever AIMCO says she owes for electricity, gas, water, sewer, and the like.

"A year ago, they added a $9 trash fee," Sobel gripes. "Plus 25 cents for processing."

Sterling residents recently learned they must start paying roughly $2 a month for pest control. "The fee is based on the actual monthly expense of the preventive maintenance," the notice read, "and, therefore, may fluctuate."

Phil Lord runs Philadelphia'sTenant Union Representative Network and says he would "never let anyone pull money from my bank account." But besides a case in California, he knows of no lawsuits challenging Direct Debit.

Few tenants are as vocal as Sobel, yet she speaks out knowing she could jeopardize living at The Sterling.

"At some point, it's not so easy for us to put our books, our collectibles, our junk in a box and move," notes Lance Haver, director of Mayor Nutter's Office of Consumer Affairs. "The landlord really has an advantage knowing it's very costly for a tenant to end the relationship."

Sobel has so far fended off Direct Debit by pointing to fine print in her lease. Duffy says even with partial compliance, AIMCO managers have more time once spent processing checks to attend to resident relations.

Direct Debit may be "green," but Haver sounds a moral alarm over what going paperless means to those who protest unsafe conditions or breaches of the lease.

"The one tool a tenant has always had is withholding the rent."

If landlords get to withdraw the rent even from aggrieved tenants, what can anyone do except leave?

Renters with stories to share can contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670 or