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Trying to evict? Better have a good reason under Philly proposal

When a tenant's lease ends, so does his right to the property. A bill proposed in Council could change that.

Advocates for Ôjust cause evictionÕ legislation in City Council chambers Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018
Advocates for Ôjust cause evictionÕ legislation in City Council chambers Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018Read moreJAMES BLOCKER / Staff Photographer

Joan Vieldhouse had been living in her North Philadelphia apartment with her daughter for four years when she got a notice of eviction. Her landlord said she'd failed to pay a water bill. She had the receipt to prove she did. But since Vieldhouse was living on a month-to-month lease, the only thing the landlord needed to kick her out was for that month to come to an end.

"I was a good tenant. I never missed a payment," said Vieldhouse, 52. "But now I find out since the lease was up, there's nothing I can do."

A bill before City Council would change that, requiring landlords to provide "just cause" for evicting someone even in instances when the lease has run out.

Advocates say the bill, proposed by Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., would protect tenants ousted after requesting repairs or complaining to the city about living conditions. It would give more notice to the increasing number of tenants like Vieldhouse, living on month-to-month leases, without much housing security.

"If someone has a good reason to evict, even if it's subject to debate, it's probably still going to be good enough," said Phil Lord, executive director of the Tenant Union Representative Network. "This bill deters people who do it for a discriminatory reason. Most people don't want to admit to something that's socially unacceptable, so they just rely on the termination of the lease."

Critics say the bill would put unfair burdens on all landlords and ultimately dissuade them from renting at a time when the city is starved for affordable housing.

The bill, which was passed out of committee Tuesday and will now go before the full City Council, includes such "just causes" for eviction as failure to pay rent, breach of lease, and nuisance behavior.

Under the bill, if a landlord wants to renovate, raise the rent, or change the lease, he must give the tenant an opportunity to accept the new terms. Even if a landlord has cause to evict, he must give the tenant proper notice —between 30 and 60 days, depending on the lease terms.

The 2,500-member Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors says the bill infringes on the rights of people to protect their property.

"When a person buys a property and exercises their rights to use it for rental purposes they assume a tremendous amount of responsibility for that property," wrote Jack Malloy, who chairs the organization's government affairs committee.

Malloy said the bill could violate contract law because it would create "a one-sided lease in perpetuity at the sole discretion of the tenant. This bill would make the term of the lease a unilateral contract."

Councilman David Oh, the lone vote against the bill at Tuesday's hearing, said it's not the business of council to "get involved in the relationship between two adults in a landlord-tenant situation. … I think while it's well intended, the end result is it could have a chilling effect where more people in poor communities do not want to be engaged in renting out facilities."

Councilman Allan Domb, who owns dozens of properties in the city, offered a different concern: The way the bill is written, it's unclear whether selling a building counts as a "just cause" for evicting tenants. A staffer from Jones' office said the bill is still undergoing revisions.

In 2016, one in 14 renters in Philadelphia were evicted, according to a study by the Reinvestment Fund. Single mothers and African Americans were found to be particularly at risk. The most common reason, failure to pay rent, is considered a "just cause," so it's unclear whether the bill would substantially drive down the city's eviction rate.

But it could address more-specific issues.

Advocates for the disabled community say tenants with physical disabilities or mental illnesses are especially at risk of being evicted without good reason.

"Landlords may see someone who has a tic or an outburst and think, 'There's something violent or wrong with that person,' " said Carla Sofronski, of Mental Health Partnerships, a nonprofit based in Center City. "And it turns out, nope, they're just everyday people, but the landlord decides, 'Let me go with someone easier to deal with.' And it's just very sad because eviction can be extremely stressful for all people, let alone people with mental health concerns."

Dorothy Parker has lived in East Oak Lane for seven years in a one-bedroom she shares with her son, who is disabled. She said she's been a thorn in the side of management, pushing for safety rails so the 33-year-old can get around easier. After he fell down the steps, gashing his face, she won a judgment against the owners of the apartment.

When her annual lease was up in January, she said, she was asked to sign a month-to-month lease, and when she refused and sought legal advice, she received a notice of eviction.

"They're mad at me," Parker, 65, said. "When you have an accident in someone else's building and you get in their pocket, they want to put you out." The attorney for Parker's landlord did not return calls seeking comment.

In another attempt to address the eviction crisis earlier this month, the city announced a $500,000 investment in legal aid services to help tenants underrepresented in landlord-tenant court. Most tenants who go to court lose.

Vieldhouse was one of the few who walked into the sixth-floor courtroom Wednesday with an attorney and several tenant rights advocates from the Philadelphia Tenants Union by her side. Her story has become part of their campaign. Vieldhouse's attorney, Jenna Collins, said she hopes the bill dissuades landlords from unnecessary eviction filings that cause serious hardships for people trying to find housing.

"If you've got an eviction on your record, it suddenly becomes a lot more difficult to access housing," said Collins, who works for Community Legal Services.

Vieldhouse lives with her 25-year-old daughter, who is six months pregnant. A pending agreement with her landlord will allow her to stay until April. She's been looking all over the city for housing. She said she understands why her landlord wants her to leave: He told her he wants to sell the building. But her eviction case, which will be listed on the Municipal Court website for the next decade, makes finding a place to move more difficult.

"I don't know where we're going to go," Vieldhouse said. "And the frustrating part is, I didn't have a problem moving. But by evicting me, you're making it harder for both of us. You want me out, and I can't find anywhere to go."