The Public Interest Law Center is trying to change Philadelphia’s Landlord-Tenant Court.
As one of the busiest corners of the municipal court system, these courtrooms in the stately Widner Building see tens of thousands of cases a year. Renters attend court without a lawyer the vast majority of the time — over 90 percent of cases, in fact. Landlords usually bring an attorney; not coincidentally, they usually win.
On paper, it shouldn’t be such an uneven fight. Over the years, Philadelphia has enacted a variety of regulations aimed at protecting renters. Most notably, a landlord must have a rental license, hold a certificate for rental suitability, and provide renters a “Partners for Good Housing” handbook, which outlines renter rights and landlord responsibilities. Without those things, landlords are not legally allowed to collect rent, allege a violation of the lease in court, or file for eviction.
But due to the obscurity of landlord-tenant court, and the fact that evicted renters are almost always low-income and unrepresented, tripping over these procedural hurdles rarely stops a landlord from kicking tenants out over unpaid rent. Without the aid of a lawyer, many renters fail to present these simple, dispositive defenses against eviction.
“What the data shows is that there has been fairly regular noncompliance with Philadelphia law among a number of collection attorneys in landlord-tenant court,” said Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, a staff attorney with the Public Interest Law Center (PILC). “The city has created use protections for tenants. But if they are ignored, they are worthless. We haven’t given these laws a chance to succeed because they have been systematically ignored by everyone in the system.”
Last Tuesday, Urevick-Ackelsberg brought a class action lawsuit against a lawyer who they claim “engaged in abusive debt collection practice.” But the defendant in the lawsuit, Glenn Ross, isn’t too different from other landlord-side lawyers in eviction court — and that’s exactly PILC’s point.
The case targets a 2016 eviction lawsuit that Ross filed against Cassandra Baker, a resident of upper North Philadelphia who was renting from Femope Properties. She says the little, stucco twin home did not have heat in one of the three bedrooms, relegating Baker to sleeping on the couch (her daughter and granddaughter slept in the other two rooms). The thermostat regularly malfunctioned, causing utility bills to skyrocket.
Baker allegedly requested repairs numerous times but, after months of pestering the landlords, was instead met with an eviction notice claiming she owed $2,300 in unpaid rent, late fees, and legal costs. (Baker insists that she had paid.)
But Baker says she had never received a certificate of rental suitability, which landlords are required to give tenants at move in, until just before Ross mailed the eviction notice. PILC argues that Ross and his client are legally precluded from suing to collect rent from any month prior to when the certificate of rental suitability was issued, at the end of September, 2016. Therefore, they argue, the reason for the eviction — back rent — is invalid. (That the landlord also changed the locks while Baker and her family were out of the home, thus depriving them of most of their worldly possessions, would have been illegal in any case.)
Baker is suing for actual damages, statutory damages, costs incurred, and attorney’s fees. She is demanding a trial by jury.
Ross did not respond to PlanPhilly’s requests for comment.
This isn’t the first lawsuit against a landlord-side lawyer that PILC has filed this year. In March, Urevick-Ackelsberg sued Bart Levy, a landlord’s attorney who had filed an eviction suit on behalf of a property owner who had neither a rental certificate nor a rental license. That litigation is ongoing and scheduled for trial next year.
Contacted by PlanPhilly in March, Levy acknowledged that the rental suitability certificate is a bar to collecting rent. But he said he did not believe it constituted a “threshold issue,” meaning it isn’t required to file a lawsuit — so he doesn’t check to ensure his clients have one before he acts.
Some members of the real estate bar said PILC’s efforts were already changing how some landlord’s attorneys operate.
“Even after the first case, lawyers started realizing that they have exposure for filing lawsuits without doing their homework and verifying that their clients actually had a right to collect,” said Ethan Fogel, a partner with Dechert LLP, a large law firm that does pro bono work for tenants facing eviction. “Sometimes that has also meant that landlords have had to address L&I violations in order to obtain the certificates, which has meant that properties are being repaired.”
Others say that while they’ve seen changes, they aren’t willing to wholly attribute them to the law center’s efforts. There’s been a big push from other institutional actors, including Community Legal Services and the Municipal Court Committee of the Philadelphia Bar Association, to promote consciousness around the need for landlords to start following the letter of the law. Judges have also become more knowledgeable about the need for rental suitability and rental licenses when landlords are filing to evict a tenant.
There are also skeptics who say that the entire eviction court model is so profoundly unjust that the Law Center’s lawsuits will need to be multiplied many times before things change.
“I think it’s great these lawsuits are going through,” said Matthew Monroe, a real estate lawyer who has represented both tenants and landlords in eviction court. “But to what impact? Will people get the message? I don’t think it’s going to happen until tons of people are filing them, giving tenants a clearer right of action against landlords who aren’t providing adequate, legal, and safe housing.”