In the dead of winter last year, residents of all 239 apartments at Penn Wynn Manor in Northwest Philadelphia — mostly disabled veterans, seniors, and other low-income folks — received eviction notices. The Philly Tenants Union and groups like Community Legal Services protested the mass eviction. We got press coverage. We found many new places to for those evicted to live, but the building's millionaire owners were still able to kick tenants out, and make off with tax breaks for doing so.
Unfortunately, most eviction cases don't get any press coverage, and we can't fight each and every one on the streets.
Evictions are rising rapidly across the nation, but are a full-blown crisis in Philadelphia. The eviction rate in Philly is 30 percent higher than the national average. The city is experiencing an economic resurgence, but without protections we threaten to further stratify our city into rich and poor. If we want to keep our city vibrant we need to do something about it. Fortunately, there's an easy way forward.
Right now City Council is sitting on a "Good Cause" bill that could significantly reduce evictions across the city.
The bill works in favor of tenants, but it's not bad for landlords either. If a tenant is paying rent on time and following a landlord's rules, there shouldn't be a reason to evict. The Good Cause bill simply puts that in writing by amending the city's existing rental practices code to include clauses that prevent evictions for no reason. Landlords would still be able to evict people if they did not pay rent, breached any part of the lease, or were a nuisance on the property.
I'm writing this op-ed as a member of the Philly Tenants Union, which has been pushing for the Good Cause bill for two years. But I'm also writing as the author of How to Kill a City. In writing that book I traveled the country and saw what our housing crisis means for people firsthand: It means families losing stability, and it means cities losing their souls as their diverse populations are scattered to cheaper housing markets. In short, if evictions continue at their current rate in Philadelphia, we risk losing a lot of what makes this city great.
Good Cause isn't a silver bullet, but it's a first and crucial step. More than 10,000 people are evicted in Philadelphia each year. Eviction rates hit communities of color particularly hard: Census tracts that are 80 percent or more black had triple the eviction rate of white communities. Increasingly, when poor people are evicted, they have nowhere left in Philly to go, as 20 percent of the city's affordable housing was lost in the last two decades.
Eviction destabilizes communities and traps people in poverty. Good Cause can help change that.
When people are able to live in their houses and neighborhoods longer, and with less disruption, they can afford to get better educations, hold better jobs, and secure better futures for their kids. And even though we believe Good Cause is a net gain for everyone, we also believe that someone who owns 40 units, like the vice president of the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia, or who wears $12,000 shoes, like the owner of Penn Wynn, can afford to provide secure housing for people who might make that in a year.
While some would like the public to think of Good Cause as a controversial measure that could harm the economy by putting unnecessary regulatory burdens on landlords, this hasn't come to fruition in dozens of municipalities from San Francisco to New Jersey, where it's already been proven to work.
The bill has already picked up steam: several Council members are on board, and the Mayor's Eviction Task Force has also recommended it in its draft report.
We think the time for this bill is now, especially because Philadelphia's economy is booming. That isn't a bad thing, but unless it's coupled with protections like Good Cause, our vibrant economy won't work for everyone. Good Cause is a reliable and realistic tool we can add to our toolkit to help protect diversity in the city. It can help preserve what makes Philly great, but we need to act now.
Peter Moskowitz is a member of the Philadelphia Tenants Union and the author of How to Kill a City. @ptrmsk