‘Not us or them’: Landlord group asks members to follow court order to halt evictions

A rooming house on Cecil B. Moore Avenue. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A rooming house on Cecil B. Moore Avenue. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

As the world began to close down in the midst of the growing coronavirus pandemic this past weekend, Lauren DiFilippo wasn’t only afraid of the disease, she also feared that her family would have nowhere to hide from it.

After DiFilippo’s fiance got laid off last year, her household struggled to make rent and their South Philadelphia landlord moved to evict them in December. This Monday, she expected the sheriff to knock on the door and expel them.

“We have nowhere to go. He wants us out by Monday, the sheriffs going to come, there’s this virus going on,” said DiFilippo, recalling her despairing train of thought over the weekend.

Then late Sunday night, Philadelphia’s municipal courts announced that they would be suspending evictions for two weeks. When DiFilippo heard the news, she burst into tears.

“I was ecstatic, I was crying, because I have my two-year-old daughter and nowhere else to go,” DiFilippo said.

She doesn’t blame her landlord — Jack Abdula — for her trouble. He was responsive to their needs and stayed on top of repairs to the rowhouse while they’ve lived there. But DiFilippo fears he’s angry that they aren’t out of the unit. (PlanPhilly reached out to Abdula’s lawyer for comment and will update this story when we hear from him.)

But landlord organizations want their membership to embrace the eviction moratorium. The Homeowners Association of Philadelphia (HAPCO), the industry’s largest lobbying group in the city, encouraged its membership to embrace the eviction ban and be as lenient as possible with their tenants.

“This is not us or them [the tenants], we are trying to work through this together,” said Victor Pinckney, a vice president with HAPCO. “We can’t be mad at them. It’s not their fault. They didn’t do this. It may cost you money, but some things are more important than money.”

Low-income Philadelphians already struggle with housing costs during normal times, prompting the city to try new policy experiments to help them. Now as the economy grinds to a halt, their jobs are expected to be the hardest hit.

Pinckney’s properties are almost entirely targeted to Philadelphia’s low-income residents. He even owns one of the city’s few legal rooming houses. He is heartened to hear that there is a push for cash assistance, as opposed to the payroll tax holiday that President Donald Trump champions.

“I don’t think I have a lot of tenants of mine who can work from home,” Pinckney said.

“I’ve seen the things that the federal governments are talking about doing such as a reduction in the payroll taxes. What about those folks who ain’t getting paid? The reduction of payroll taxes does not help with employees who can’t go to work.”

In the upper-income rental market, where evictions are far less common, landlords said they aren’t seeing a huge change yet. Many of their tenants can work from home and some may even have substantial savings accounts they could draw on if things get especially bad.

“I don’t have many evictions, I haven’t been in [landlord-tenant] court in years,” said Harvey Spear, president of HAPCO and owner of Centra Associates. “Whatever the CDC says I think we should abide by. Whatever the government says, if eviction courts are held up, we have to abide by that.”

Spear said the landlords he has the most concern for are HAPCO’s members who run student housing — with universities on indefinite hiatus many of their tenants want to break their leases — and small landlords who will struggle to keep up with mortgage payments if they don’t have a steady rental income.

“I’ve been in those businesses for over 40 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Spear said. “It’s a bad situation with ripple effects all the way down the line.”

In South Philadelphia, DiFilippo desperately wants to find a new place for her family to move. But with the city on lockdown finding new housing right now will be tough. She sees the eviction pause as divine intervention in her time of need.

When facing her landlord in court, she learned that he’d been illegally collecting rent from February to July 2019. Abdula hadn’t shown the family a certification showing the property is lead-free, which is required of any Philadelphia landlord renting a property built before 1978 to a family with a child six years of age or younger. DiFilippo said her family could have counter-sued for those months’ rent if they so choose.

“I believe because we did the right thing and did not sue him,” DiFilippo said. “It wasn’t his fault we couldn’t pay our rent, he wasn’t a slumlord, he was a good landlord. Because we didn’t try to retaliate, God took care of everything for us. ”

WHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal