Earlier this year, Judge Lyris Younge was shifted out of Philadelphia Family Court after an ethics probe was reportedly opened into claims she violated parents' rights by removing their kids without ever hearing their testimony.
Now, she's causing a stir in her new role at the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Civil Division — where she ordered a building full of tenants in North Philadelphia evicted with just one week's notice.
"We've never seen anything like this before," said Rasheedah Phillips, a lawyer for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia who filed an emergency petition late Wednesday for an injunction to give the residents more time to move.
The city and the landlord, Cumberland Equities Holdings, had been in court for more than a year over numerous code violations — mostly related to work done without proper permits or inspections — and had put in place temporary accommodations, including a 24-hour fire watch. But on Sept. 27, when the case came before Younge, she issued an order for the building to be cleared by Oct. 5. It's unclear why, as there were no new filings by the city indicating imminent danger or the need for removals.
That has left residents in a bind. It is common for judges to order the landlord to pay moving expenses in such a situation, Phillips said, but that didn't happen here. "They don't have anyplace else to go, and the judge did not order the landlord to return security deposits earlier, to give money for a hotel, anything like that, that would be typical in a situation like this."
Ari Miller, who residents say is the owner and who is listed in the legal action, did not respond immediately to phone calls Thursday. Younge said, through a staffer, that she could not comment on the matter.
Karen Guss, a spokesperson for the Department of Licenses & Inspections, said that the property, an industrial building, had been converted to 16 or 17 apartments without any permits. L&I had sought to push the owner to bring the building up to code without displacing people unnecessarily.
At the Sept. 27 hearing, "the city said to the judge that the situation was coming to a critical point and if the violations weren't complied by the next hearing, the city would be asking for a cease," Guss said. "At that point, the judge said, 'I'm going to issue a cease now.' "
Wednesday night, more than a dozen residents who still remained in the building crowded into what was, for two more days, Nicole Conway's beautiful loft apartment, now piled with moving boxes — all her possessions stacked and labeled. Conway, 49, had received notice of the eviction via text message Friday, Sept. 29, while out of town for a wedding over the weekend, and had not slept since she'd returned to Philadelphia on Tuesday. She said she had already spent more than $1,300 on a moving truck, supplies, and storage.
"We never received any warning," Conway said.
She displayed an email she received from Miller, offering to return her security deposit and last month's rent only if she would sign a contract agreeing to waive her right to sue him. To her and other residents, that feels like extortion.
James Scarborough, 35, who shares a loft with his partner, Jason Chandler, 38, said the couple plan to stay with Chandler's family in Texas. But without his security deposit, he's not even sure how he'd get down there. He said the relocation services he was referred to didn't have much to offer the residents, who include graphic designers, lab technicians, and one funeral director. The staffer he spoke with did say shelter space was a possibility.
Scarborough, a hairdresser, isn't having that: "I just came from a nice loft, and now you want me to live in a shelter?"
On Younge's order, a boilerplate requirement that the court order be posted at the building was scratched out with pen. That meant some tenants weren't even aware of the eviction until the weekend.
Lucille Womack, 58, found out about it when she heard other tenants talking in the hallway.
"I'm kind of in shock," she said. "I have no plan."
She said the landlord suggested she could rent one of his other properties — but they were much smaller and more expensive. She asked if she could just rent it for a month — until the end of her lease. "He said, 'We don't want to do anything temporary.' "
Some residents are looking for Airbnbs. One, a nanny, is staying with the family she works for temporarily. Others are on emergency apartment-hunting missions.
Adriana Jenkins, 24, can't help noticing that the white residents in the building have all moved out already — whether they had more notice, or just more resources, she's not sure. "Everyone who's left is a minority," she said.
Anne Maisonable, a social worker, just uprooted her life in North Jersey a few months ago to move in with her girlfriend, Jen Schleuter. Now, they'll have to move somewhere else, Schleuter said. With two days to go, they'll have to take what they can get.
But as of now, she said, "we don't know where we're sleeping Friday night."