This article originally appeared on Philadelphia Weekly.
On their first visit to the house, Corrine Morris and her boyfriend Charles Hagood used some imagination, envisioning the busted-up hardwood living room floor restored, visualizing their kids enjoying the back yard with the back steps fixed and the concrete littering the grass hauled away.
The rental agent told them the repairs would be completed soon, and in April, 2017, they put down a deposit on the $950 per month three-bedroom home.
Morris, already the mom of a perceptive 3-year-old girl named Chloe, was four months pregnant. Hagood had two children from a previous relationship. The home in East Germantown was the bowl to blend their families. But three target dates the rental agent set to complete repairs slipped by, and after two months of waiting, Morris asked: “Do we just need to move on?”
The agent instructed them to move in, saying the remaining work could be finished with them onsite. They arrived in June to find the floor finished, though not the stairs or the yard, and something new: The only running water came from a pipe in the basement, though the rental agent assured them they’d have running water throughout the house by day’s end.
Morris thought the delay would be no big deal. The water, however, would never be fixed. And a leak would start, creating a black mold stain in the kitchen. Eventually, Morris and her family – none of whom did anything wrong – even faced eviction. The experience would prove character defining – involving Morris in a dispute that would change how business is done for Philadelphia’s tenants and property owners, and demonstrating how, even in a system changing for the better, renters will often be forced to choose between subservience and an existential fight.
‘A very large step for Philadelphia’
In November, Philadelphia passed a Right to Counsel bill that will provide a free attorney to anyone who faces eviction and earns income at 200% or less of the federal poverty level. The bill curbs the historic imbalance of power between property owners and renters, which plays out most dramatically in court.
There, landlords have traditionally employed attorneys about 81% of the time compared with 8% of renters. The disparity shows in the results, tabulated in a report compiled for the Philadelphia Bar Association: 78% of renters without attorneys face “disruptive displacement,” saddling them with debt or even leaving them homeless; while 95% of renters with lawyers wind up with better results all around, ranging from less cash owed and more time to move to full judgments in their favor.
“The importance of the right to counsel bill can’t be minimized,” says Rachel Garland, a veteran of the city’s eviction courts and managing attorney at Community Legal Services. “This is a very large step for Philadelphia.”
Data analyzed for this story suggests that about 12% of the city’s evictions are possibly unjust, conducted in clear violation of city ordinances. Morris’ story is a case in point. The right to counsel bill offers the chance to correct these abuses. But while some landlords might change their behavior, according to eviction experts like Garland, attempts at exploitation won’t stop.
The BIG Number: 20
The percentage of people newly entering city homeless shelters reporting eviction as the cause.
The subject of evictions only received national attention in 2016 when former Harvard Fellow Matthew Desmond published Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Desmond, a sociologist who now runs the Eviction Lab at Princeton, argued that evictions are a “cause, not just a condition — of poverty.” Evictions are disproportionately leveled against black renters, particularly child-rearing women, even when controlling for factors like income.
These forced moves create havoc in entire families and communities, causing families to double-up in overcrowded homes, forcing parents out of work, setting back entire classrooms in school (beyond even the evicted child) and generating adverse health effects, like depression. A city task force reported that about 20% of people newly entering city homeless shelters report eviction as the cause.
Philadelphia recently tipped over from an owner-occupied housing market to more than 50% renter occupied. The number of properties available to low-income renters has also dwindled by 20% between 2000 and 2014, according to a Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank study, creating a supplier’s market for those renting to impoverished families. The result is that Philadelphia renters are among the most severely rent-burdened in the United States – paying 30- to 50% or more of their monthly incomes to keep a home.
In Philly, the number of eviction filings dropped by about 17% over the last six years. However, a recent report by the Reinvestment Fund, a nonprofit devoted to community development, suggests the decline might reflect broad economic forces, the number of evictions rising and falling with the local unemployment rate.
Evictions, then, will always be with us, a product of economic cycles. And while most evictions concern straight-forward disputes over money owed, a portion are unfounded, inflicting damages tenant attorneys can ameliorate but not undo. This is something Morris knows because she lived it.
‘I’d never been through anything like this before.’
Standing five-foot, three-inches and maybe 120 pounds, complete with a growing pregnant belly, Corrine Morris spent days, weeks, months, trekking from the basement to the kitchen and bathroom with five-gallon buckets of water. The average family requires 80 gallons of water per person each day, meaning 16 trips per person in her care. Morris kept a pot of water boiling almost constantly for cooking, cleaning up after meals and providing bathwater for her family.
A property manager working for her landlord made continued promises he’d get the water fixed, yet never did, and offered shifting excuses. Morris felt increasingly helpless. “I was 25,” she says. “I’d never been through anything like this before.”
She and Hagood had met, two years earlier, working the same shift at a Northwest Philadelphia Lowe’s. He greeted customers while she operated a nearby cash register. They talked, bonding over their dedication to their kids, and started dating. The plan, when they moved in together, was for him to continue working while she stayed home, tending to the children and their new place, which came to mean this constant effort to gather water.
“We would get creative,” says Morris, recalling how she and Hagood began to keep jugs of water in the kitchen and bathroom, and how they discovered, if they held them a certain way, they could wash their hands as if from a tap. All this, she says, “to survive in our own house.”
When she could, Morris also got online, combining search phrases like “tenant rights” and “Pennsylvania.” She discovered, quickly, that when landlords fail to make necessary repairs, vital to the house’s habitability, she could withhold rent. This option, along with calling the Department of Licenses and Inspections, comprise renters’ only real power, which they often resist using for fear of escalating conflict.
The BIG Number: 2,300
The number of eviction filings that appear to violate the city’s ordinance. Of those evictions, more than 42% were willed within three months of an L&I violation.
Morris had paid her first month’s rent before moving in, but by the time the second month came due she understood her rights and decided not to pay. She also started bypassing the property manager she knew only as “Gerald” to try and reach Simon Bouhadana, President of Home 4 Rent, the Brooklyn-based company that owned the property. Bouhadana had, by this time, been covered in the Philadelphia Inquirer for failing to follow city lead remediation codes in another property, but Morris was unaware of the story.
Another month passed before water worked anywhere beyond the basement, and then only to an upstairs bathroom, still cold. Any sense of blessing Morris felt was short circuited when she saw big rivulets of water, streaking the walls around her stove. The new water service had revealed a massive leak. Thick black ribbons of mold soon formed. She and Hagood found the conditions so unlivable, they packed their kids up to live with relatives until they could get the house into shape.
Morris visited her 3-year-old, living with a grandmother in West Philadelphia, in scenes that became increasingly bleak. “Mommy,” Chloe would ask, “Why are you sad?”
Morris felt increasingly helpless and depressed, trying to function as a mother and putting on “a front” for her family so they couldn’t see she was falling apart. Realizing this was beginning to affect her emotional and mental well-being, Morris used her last remaining power and called the Department of Licenses and Inspections.
The September 2017 L&I visit recorded nine total violations, including the still unrepaired back stairs, cracks in the building’s foundation, and the leak that caused mold. Morris, still working from the tenant advice she found online, also sent Bouhadana a letter, establishing a written timeline of events and explaining she would not pay that month’s rent. “The last thing I wanna do,” she thought at the time, “is look like I’m just a crazy black lady.”
A little more than two weeks later, Morris arrived home with several bags of groceries. She stopped outside her front door, curious, when she discovered a letter poking from the top of her mailbox. The return address listed an attorney, causing a tremor of fear in her stomach.
Still standing in her doorway, she tore open the envelope and started to read but the words made no sense. Her eyes darted around the page trying to take the message in. Rather than make needed repairs, Home 4 Rent demanded all past due payments plus late fees, totaling $3,971, and insisted she and Hagood get out, too.
Slowly, she understood: She was being evicted.
She read it several times, still on the stoop. All her senses numbed, like she’d left her body. But the words never changed.
Morris’s predicament appears grossly unjust, yet this basic scenario is common enough that it has a name: Retaliatory eviction. A tenant requests needed repairs. The landlord ignores or refuses. The tenant insists, sometimes phoning L&I or withholding rent. And the property owner, tired of dealing with a nettlesome tenant, retaliates by filing an eviction.
Attorney George Donnelly, at the Public Interest Law Center, a nonprofit legal firm designed to promote civil rights, recites a list of clients, including Morris, who faced retaliatory eviction, and a line he uses, any time he’s testified on the subject before City Council.
“Landlords in Philadelphia respond to repair requests with eviction notices.”
Paul Jay Cohen, general counsel to the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia (HAPCO), says he doesn’t know how many evictions in the city might be retaliatory but believes the number is “small.”
A local fair housing ordinance against retaliatory eviction prohibits landlords from evicting tenants for numerous reasons, including joining a tenant’s union. The ordinance also states that any finding by L&I of a code violation, for up to a year prior to the eviction filing, provides the basis for tenants to argue the eviction is retaliatory and places the burden of proof on the property owner to prove that it’s not.
According to data analyzed for this story, nearly 12% of evictions filed in 2018 appeared to fall within this ordinance. An analysis of eviction filings in the Philadelphia Municipal Court alongside L&I code violations in 2018 – where the property also received a code violation in the calendar year leading up to the eviction – found that more than 2,300 evictions last year appear to violate the city’s ordinance. Additionally, more than 42% of those evictions were filed within three months of an L&I violation. These numbers only indicate evictions that violate one specific ordinance that attempts to curb retaliatory evictions but doesn’t account for cases in which L&I was never called, meaning this finding could be an under count.
Nevertheless, the numbers are alarming, suggesting that slightly more than one in 10 evictions are, without some compelling counter-evidence from the property owner, illegal.
According to tenant attorneys, landlords can even file an eviction before L&I has a chance to inspect the property, sometimes up to two months before the violation is filed. Further data suggests that the number of potential retaliatory evictions in 2018 grew to more than 3,100 cases – or more than 15%.
‘As a young black woman with no money, can I win?’
Morris’s experience of retaliatory eviction is particularly instructive, capturing the power a righteous tenant with an attorney can wield, and the degree to which renters will remain at a disadvantage.
By the time Morris received this letter, she was worn down by months of having a basic request – please fix the water – ignored. She saw her own vulnerability, most, through the eyes of her daughter, Chloe, who continued to check on her mom’s welfare. “Mommy,” the girl would say, “don’t be sad.”
This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, Morris thought. No 3-year-old girl should be consoling her mother. She worried the stress she felt was hurting her daughter and the baby inside her. She also knew she was being wronged and needed an attorney. She and Hagood each made calls to various city law firms, finding no assistance. But her research also taught her she might be able to get one for free at Community Legal Services, so she visited with a representative there and waited to hear back.
In the meantime, the rental agent who originally showed her the property got in touch with an offer that only left her more confused. If she just left, he told her, she could get her security deposit back and the whole thing would be over. He refused to put the offer in writing, so Morris feared she could leave the property and still face the claim against her, for nearly $4,000. But she thought about taking it, anyway.
Then the call came back, through Community Legal Services, confirming she’d have an attorney. Still, she had to compose herself.
“As a young black woman with no money,” she wondered, “can I win?”
What made her mind up was her kids.
“Kids are always watching you, even when they’re too young to understand,” she says. “They’re feeling things you’re going through, even the baby growing inside of me, he’s feeling everything that’s going on. My daughter saw me be sad a lot during that time. And I wanted her to see that … you will be sad sometimes. But you can fight.”
The BIG Number: 3,100
The number of potential retaliatory eviction cases in 2018 that additional data suggests the city could be looking to re-mediate. A whopping 15% of the total number.
“The kids certainly saw what we were going through,” says Hagood, “because they were going through it, too, so we thought about the message we were sending them.”
Shortly after she came to court with an attorney, Home 4 Rent withdrew its eviction filing. But her case wasn’t over. Morris’s lawyer, Donnelly from the Public Interest Law Center, filed a suit against Home 4 Rent, which settled without a trial. Morris also served as a co-plaintiff in a second suit, this one a class action, which alleged that attempts to collect rent from her were a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
The suit claimed that landlord attorneys violate the Act when they demand back rent at a time, legally speaking, that the property owner is not entitled to payment. Home 4 Rent had not filed a city-required certificate of rental suitability before renting the home to Morris and Hagood, indicating the home was in habitable condition, which must be filed before collecting rent from anyone.
They had also not provided a lead-free certificate, indicating the home was free of lead paint, which is necessary to legally collect money when renting to a family with young children. Morris was also within her rights to withhold rent during a time when the property owner was refusing to make necessary repairs.
The suit is at least partly responsible for rules changes in landlord-tenant court, making the attorneys representing property owners responsible for providing evidence their client supplied a certificate of rental suitability. Of course, this is a victory for renters. But Morris’s story also captures the limits of what tenant attorneys can accomplish.
For starters, there is already that Fair Housing ordinance, which declares retaliatory evictions unlawful. Theoretically, landlords who engage in this predatory practice should lose in court if the case goes to a judge, but tenant attorneys say winning such a ruling is difficult.
Donnelly says he has presented evidence regarding retaliatory evictions at least 10 times. But he’s never seen a municipal court judge issue a finding on that basis, even in cases he ultimately won. Garland says the difficulty of winning judgments for retaliatory eviction is nuanced. Judges sometimes feel sympathetic toward a tenant making such a claim but still rule that “this relationship needs to end” and allow the property owner to proceed with an eviction. The lag time between filing and a court hearing can also be long enough that the lease has already ended.
This means that retaliatory evictions – at least 2,391 possible cases last year – figure to continue. And the solution is a new fight beyond right to counsel, to ensure the ordinance is enforced. Tenant attorneys say one solution might be implementing a system in which L&I violations are automatically flagged and made part of any eviction file, to alert judges to potential issues and stress their importance.
As of right now, when a landlord files an eviction, they are expected to indicate whether they are aware of any code violations at their property. Of the 2,300-plus evictions in 2018 identified as potentially retaliatory, more than 96% of them included no such admission from the property owner.
Garland adds that as tenant protections increase, landlords might also be finding other ways to retaliate. The CLS intake department, she says, is seeing “an increase in illegal evictions… on a weekly basis” – in which landlords either removed the front door from its hinges, shut off the utilities, changed the locks or even moved new tenants in while their renter was at work, all without filing an eviction at all.
“As big a victory as the right to counsel is for Philadelphians,” says Garland, “there is still a very large power imbalance when landlords and tenants are in court.”
The rights of property owners are traditionally accorded greater respect than those of renters, and the landlord also has a lot less at stake.
“To the landlord, this is a business decision,” says Garland, “as to what they’re doing with this investment property. Whereas for the tenant, this is their home. This is where they’re raising their family. This is where they are creating stability for themselves and… to lose that on a very quick timeline just sets the rest of their life off into a downward spiral.”
Morris and Hagood had family members they could go live with, which surely made it easier for them to fight, and today, they feel triumphant. “I want my kids to see they have a strong mother. If you don’t ever see mommy do anything else, you know mommy was strong.”
But they didn’t walk away unscathed.
All that time she was in that house, she says, she “didn’t really have a life.” She was so consumed with worry, there was no chance to enjoy anything. After leaving the home in East Germantown, she and Charles had to live apart again for more than a year. Morris describes “separation issues” brought about by spending so much time away from her daughter.
And while she and Charles are living together again, their new home in Overbrook is smaller than they’d hoped. Chloe and the new child she nicknamed “baby-son” live with them. Hagood’s kids from the previous relationship live with their mother. In other words, the life they envisioned for themselves – and thought they’d secured with a rental deposit – still hasn’t come to pass. And so her experience is evidence:
The battlefield on which renters and landlords fight has grown more level with the years. But it will never be flat.
This article is part of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among 23 news organizations, focused on Philadelphia’s push towards economic justice. Read more of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.