» UPDATE, Feb. 16: A Court of Common Pleas judge ruled Wednesday in favor of Asantewaa Nkrumah-Ture and ordered all other occupants to immediately vacate the West Philly property. The ruling grants Nkrumah-Ture “temporary exclusive” access to the house for the remainder of her tenancy. It was not immediately clear if the current owner intends to appeal the decision.
Asantewaa Nkrumah-Ture thought she had 30 days to move out.
Last week, her landlord sold the house she’s been renting in West Philadelphia since 2019. But since the deed changed hands, the new owner’s family began moving in — with her — and things quickly turned hostile.
“They started moving in beds,” Nkrumah-Ture said. “They locked me in my room. … We had to call the police.”
The two-story house in Cobbs Creek is now a stage for a dispute over two conflicting lease agreements — one that entitles Nkrumah-Ture to renter’s rights over the entire property, the other only to her upstairs bedroom. Since last Sunday, the landlord-tenant conflict has escalated, drawing an alleged assault, numerous visits from police, intervention from City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, and a phone call to Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw.
Nkrumah-Ture is a housing-rights activist and a member of the Philadelphia Tenants Union, and her allies have helped shine a light on the distressing situation. But the feud also highlights tensions within the city’s cutthroat real estate market, where buyable houses and affordable rentals are in hot demand.
Vikram Patel, a housing attorney with Community Legal Services who is representing Nkrumah-Ture, said this is not the first case he’s taken where a new property owner tried moving in to force a tenant out.
“It’s not something I’ve heard a lot about [before last year],” Patel said. “But unfortunately, because of property transfers and increasing rent, we’re seeing an increasing impact on housing stability.”
Patel filed an emergency injunction in Landlord-Tenant Court on Thursday against Alvan Morrison and unnamed occupants of the property on South 55th Street, claiming his client maintains rights to the whole property for another month.
Data on illegal evictions are scarce, but city officials say they’ve heard more claims about the problem in recent months as rental assistance funds run dry. The city’s Landlord-Tenant Court is packed. The Fair Housing Commission has more than 525 open cases, with more complaints filed in the first half of the current fiscal year than in all of 2020. About a third of those cases involve a lease termination or a notice to vacate.
“We have seen a significant increase in complaints since the eviction moratorium expired,” said city spokesperson Kevin Lessard.
The saga on South 55th Street began in October when the former owner of the property, Terence Small, told Nkrumah-Ture he was putting the house on the market. Nkrumah-Ture, who works as an administrative assistant, began looking and saving money for a new place.
Last week, the new owner, Morrison, gave Nkrumah-Ture 30 days’ written notice to vacate the property, during which time she would be “considered a roommate in the home,” according to the notice provided to The Inquirer. Morrison could not be reached for comment.
On Sunday, a man who identified himself in videos as Morrison’s brother showed up and demanded the woman move out immediately. In cell phone footage reviewed by The Inquirer, the man cursed at Nkrumah-Ture, appeared to smack a cell phone from someone’s hand, and tossed items around the dining room.
Police officers showed up several times in the following days. Nkrumah-Ture showed them a copy of the lease she had signed in 2019 indicating her rights extended to the whole property. But the owners showed the police a different lease that limited her access to one bedroom.
By law, property owners must honor all rental agreements signed by the previous owners, and provide 30 days’ notice for termination.
“By moving into the house they’re depriving her of a space she’s paying for,” said Patel, the CLS attorney, “and essentially trying to force her out by making the place unlivable, damaging her stuff, and making her feel unsafe.”
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It’s not clear why there were two versions of the lease. Video shows a man Nkrumah-Ture identified as Small blaming her for not moving out sooner during a dispute last week. He did not return a phone call for comment.
Nkrumah-Ture said she filed a complaint against Small with the Fair Housing Commission in January, after she learned he had not held a rental license and became fearful that she would be suddenly evicted during the property transfer.
Property records show Small purchased the property in 2016 for $81,500. The Department of Licenses and Inspections confirmed Small didn’t obtain a rental permit until last month — around the same time Nkrumah-Ture says she lodged a complaint.
Gauthier, whose City Council district includes the house, showed up at the property Tuesday afternoon to help resolve the situation. Officers on scene had sided with the new owners, Gauthier said, but Gauthier felt the case deserved to be heard through the courts and pushed the new owners to stop entering the house. At one point, she called the police commissioner to get clarity on what officers should do.
Gauthier said the two sides eventually reached an agreement: The new owners would leave and only Nkrumah-Ture would have a key to new locks. “And they wouldn’t bother her like that anymore and go through the appropriate channels,” Gauthier said.
The next day, they were back again.
Nkrumah-Ture said the new occupants began moving in mattresses. On Wednesday evening, Nkrumah-Ture said she and her friends were locked inside her bedroom. They called the police again.
Gauthier called the situation “heartbreaking.” In cell phone videos, the new owners said they had no choice, as they planned to move into the newly purchased house immediately.
Nkrumah-Ture said she took time off work to stay at the house and protect her belongings. Ironically, she said this was also prolonging her hunt for a new place.
“The quicker I can look for houses, the quicker I can be out of here,” she said.
Nkrumah-Ture said she crowdfunded $4,800 for relocation expenses. But it hasn’t been so easy for her to find a rental within her $600-a-month budget.
The Philadelphia Rent Control Coalition, which includes several housing advocacy groups, is calling on city officials to buy more time for cost-burdened renters who are in similar situations.
The group wants property owners to cover moving expenses for tenants like Nkrumeh-Ture who are forced out due to property sales.
“Having first and last month deposits and a moving truck and utility deposits — it really adds up, and it can take people months and months to save that up,” said Michelle Crouch, a steering committee member with the coalition. “Even if they want to move out, they might not be able to.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.