Council hearing examines evictions, substandard housing, and possible solutions

William Church didn’t look at ease in City Council’s high-ceilinged chambers. The 65-year-old former Marine experiences what he calls “extreme anxiety,” a condition he slowly and deliberately described to the gathered politicians. Church also needs an oxygen tank to breathe. He’s been admitted to the hospital three times in recent months.

Nonetheless there he sat on Monday afternoon, for five minutes the center of attention in the packed hall. He’d come to tell the panel of council members about his struggles with an unresponsive landlord. The squirrels that run amok in his ceiling, the leaks that have spoiled his bed and belongings.

Once, Church says, he’d been forced to sweep snow out of his room. Most recently a pipe burst in the basement, allowing four inches of raw sewage to seep in.  

Still Church did not want to move. The process is strenuous for him, both physically and financially. What’s more, he likes the neighborhood. It’s where his church is located, where his friends live, and it’s close to the Veteran Hospital where he gets his treatments.

“I have to live with the stench and the germs,” says Church. “These housing conditions have affected my breathing and my anxiety.”

He withheld rent to force the landlord to fix the leaks in the basement and in the roof. That got their attention and got Church an eviction lawsuit.

Church’s testimony opened the hearings organized by Councilwoman Helen Gym to address substandard housing, eviction, and renter rights. The first witness in a docket of sixteen, his case provided a window into conditions at the bottom of Philadelphia’s eviction-haunted rental market.

Recent research from The Reinvestment Fund found that about one in 14 renters are subject to court-ordered eviction every year. The official eviction rate is highest in African American communities, where it ranges between 10 and 11 percent. Turnover of that magnitude disrupts education, work life, and social ties—destabilizing swathes of the city.

In many neighborhoods, the very low-income rental market locks in substandard housing of the kind Church describes. It isn’t easy making a profit by housing low-income populations. In that context, it is hard to balance the cost of extensively renovating and repairing a home by increasing rent, which tenants can’t afford to pay.

“It is a responsibility of our city and our community to rise to this challenge,” said Gym, “to ensure that the basic dignity and human right to housing isn’t going to be based on the whims of a ruthless market that exploits our city’s most vulnerable.”

Testimony from the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) offered the most tangible policy promises, with a focus on substandard housing and unlicensed rentals.

The agency began to respond to increasing concerns by creating a policy earlier this year to deny rental licenses to landlords if their properties have outstanding code violations. At the beginning of the year, seven percent of the city’s 260,000 private rental units fell into this category.

Rebecca Swanson, L&I’s director of planning, promised that inspectors would soon be visiting properties that failed to renew because of the new requirement.

Swanson promised other reforms as well. Next year the department will begin denying licenses to those who have not submitted the necessary lead certifications.

Swanson said that L&I intends to put more resources towards locating unlicensed units. The department believes there are 50,000 unlicensed rental units in the city. It investigated 3,800 of them in 2016, which she said wasn’t nearly enough.

But she counseled caution on some reforms.

“We are aware that other cities have implemented programs under which all rental units are inspected annually,” said Swanson. She estimated such a program would require L&I to quadruple its inspection staff—from 45 to 175—at a cost of $8.5 million.

“Factoring in the crucial calculation of re-inspections [to ensure compliance] that number would double to $17 million,” said Swanson.

Alternatives include a rotating yearly schedule where L&I would inspect 46,000 units a year (they currently get to 10,500) or a focus on those who own multiple properties with simultaneous code violations.

The primary options available to the city when it comes to eviction would be providing low-income tenants with a right-to-counsel when they reach landlord-tenant court. Currently more than 90 percent of renters do not have a lawyer, while more than 80 percent of landlords do.

There are a few jurisdictions that have made moves towards a tenant right-to-counsel. In 2014 San Francisco created a pilot tenant representation program, while earlier this year Boston mayor Marty Walsh prompted such legislation to be introduced at the state level.

New York City is the furthest in the process. The 2016 budget included a $72 million infusion to massively boost tenant legal services. Already the percentage of renters with legal representation in eviction court jumped to 27 percent from 1 percent, while the number of evictions dropped by 24 percent.

Andrew Scherer of the Impact Center for Public Interest Law described the New York victory. After a years-long campaign, in February, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced that all tenants under 200 percent of area median income are guaranteed legal representation. He dedicated another $93 million over five years to staffing up the legal aid offices.

“We have as progressive of a Mayor and City Council as we have ever had,” said Scherer, to partly explain how advocates were able to successfully push DeBlasio to act. “And the mayor is up for reelection this year.”

Scherer acknowledged that the two cities have many differences, although the most pertinent one—the health of their respective tax bases—went unmentioned.

“I look forward to a day in the not too distant future when both Philadelphia and New York have established the right to counsel in housing,” said Scherer.

Periodically rambunctious tenant advocacy groups offered another proposal, through less conventional means.

Waving signs reading “Homes are a basic human right” and “People Over Profit,” activists representing the Philadelphia Tenants’ Union interrupted the proceedings to demand their call for a “just cause” eviction law be given attention. Such a policy would seek to put limits on a landlord’s ability to evict tenants, only allowing the action for major infractions like non-payment of rent, violations of the lease, or damage to the property.  

Calling the list of witnesses “hand-picked,” the Tenants Union wanted to be heard before the end of the multi-hour hearing. By that time, they feared (understandably) that attention would have waned as council and audience members grew “hungry and tired.”

The committee refused the request and tenants’ union members filed out chanting “No eviction without just cause.”

No landlord representatives spoke out at the hearing, although the Pennsylvania Apartment Association submitted written testimony urging caution and skepticism about the claims of housing advocates.

All of the councilmembers appeared sympathetic to the hearing’s aims, including the only Republican present.

“These are awful living conditions no one should have to tolerate,” said Al Taubenberger, referring to the testimony of Church and several other tenants living in substandard housing and threatened with eviction. “I would agree with some of the signs here. It’s a basic human right to live in a decent house.”

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