Accelerated evictions in West Philly spur emergency hearing

 Residents at Penn Wynn House in West Philadelphia are fighting an eviction notice from the new owner. (Bastiaan Slabbers for NewsWorks)

Residents at Penn Wynn House in West Philadelphia are fighting an eviction notice from the new owner. (Bastiaan Slabbers for NewsWorks)

A group of tenants in West Philadelphia being evicted to make way for a redevelopment project is taking the case to the city’s Human Relations Commission.

Executive director Rue Landau said the commission is investigating 17 complaints from residents of Penn Wynn House, a 231-unit high-rise just a few blocks from St. Joseph’s University in the city’s Wynnefield neighborhood.

The commission will hold an emergency hearing Thursday afternoon to decide whether to issue a temporary injunction on some evictions and a plan by the building owner — Cross Properties — to begin reducing utility services as construction begins.

As American’s poorest major city grapples with affordable housing and eviction crises, this could be a harbinger of things to come.

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“Even in the past year, we’ve seen an uptick” in complaints, Landau said.

Rasheedah Phillips, an attorney with Community Legal Services, filed nine complaints and five injunctions on behalf of Penn Wynn tenants.

They allege the property managers are illegally forcing them to move out 30 days sooner than other residents because they’re on some form of public assistance, such as housing choice, “section eight” vouchers or disability.

“Offering tenants different deals based on their income or based on the fact they receive subsidy, which under Philadelphia law is considered a source of income, that’s illegal,” Phillips said. “They … shouldn’t be doing that, even though, so far, they seem to have gotten away with it.”

Phillips said the company also has informed residents it will begin reducing utility service to the building on Thursday when reconstruction is expected to begin.

Cross Properties did not respond to a request for comment.

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Karen Harvey (left), a resident at Penn Wynn House for eight years, filed a complaint with Philadelphia’s Human Relations Commission. (Bastiaan Slabbers for NewsWorks)

According to the company’s website, it plans $40 million in renovations — including a dog park, pool and roof deck with views of the Philadelphia skyline. Tenants received letters in January and February informing them they needed to leave the building by sometime in June, but many claim they have not been able to find new, affordable housing.

While Thursday’s preliminary injunction hearing could result in temporary relief for a small number of tenants, the Human Relations Commission’s investigation into the 17 complaints could take up to 100 days, as is required by law.

Depending on its findings, the commissioners could order the responsible party to pay damages, attorney’s fees and fines of up to $2,000, although many housing discrimination cases result in settlements.

But the tenants of Penn Wynn, and their advocates at the Philadelphia Tenants Union, are hoping to send a larger message, Phillips said.

“If your lease says you gotta go, your lease says you gotta go,” she said. “But if your lease does not say that, and a landlord comes and forces that upon you, that’s not right, and so they should not be able to get away with it.”

Last week, City Councilman Curtis Jones introduced a bill inspired by the situation at Penn Wynn to require owners and landlords of multifamily buildings to give tenants at least six months’ notice if they plan to evict them for renovations.

“What this bill would do is protect renters from gentrification,” he said.

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