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Local Tenants Union Pushes for “Just Cause” Eviction Legislation

Barry Thompson knows firsthand the stress of going through an eviction and the fruitless legal battle following it with a former landlord in court.

His troubles began in 2015, when he lived at 2225 N. Bouvier St. near Temple University. According to Thompson, his landlord, Mike Davis, would not respond to his complaints about bed-bug and rodent infestations or requests for repairs. After months of inaction from Davis, Thompson decided to withhold rent due to uninhabitable conditions and he joined the Philadelphia Tenants Union (PTU), of which he is now the president.

Davis succeeded in evicting Thompson after a battle in landlord-tenant court and so Thompson is currently seeking stable housing.

Thompson’s story is just one example out of thousands of cases of Philadelphia tenants who have been evicted. As the president of the PTU, he and other union organizers are advocating for “Just Cause” eviction legislation in Philadelphia.

Just Cause eviction means that a landlord has to provide a reason for evicting a tenant. Valid reasons may include may include violation of the lease, constant disorderliness or habitual failure to pay rent.

On April 5th, PTU organizers accompanied Thompson to Councilwoman Helen Gym’s eviction crisis discussion in Germantown. During Gym’s town hall, Thompson addressed the panel of housing, legal and public health experts on why Just Cause eviction legislation is important.

He said women with children are at a higher risk of being evicted, and Philadelphia is heavily lacking in pro-bono legal assistance to represent at-risk tenants. Last year, 24,000 Philadelphians were evicted, while only seven pro-bono lawyers exist in the city to represent tenants.

However, landlords all over Philadelphia have the ability to evict tenants with no cause. According to Brandon Slattery with the PTU, landlords can use various tools to evict tenants without just cause.

Slattery said the tenants union has heard stories from mothers who reported that their landlords shut off utilities and then called child services on them for living without an important utility. Once child services visited the mothers, the landlord evicted them. Situations like this are what created organizations like the PTU.

In February 2016, Thompson participated in a tenants union action outside the North Philadelphia Seventh-Day Adventist Church which Davis attends. He, along with other PTU members, distributed flyers featuring the landlord’s face and a summary of grievances.

Shortly before Thompson moved into the house, he said Davis suddenly evicted a previous tenant, so Thompson could move in. Davis later evicted Thompson and other tenants living in the same house by closing the property. According to Thompson, he wanted to rent it out for a higher price.

After a struggle in landlord-tenant court, Thompson gained an extension on the amount of time he had to vacate the property. “From going to court, I was given 90 days to vacate with no judgment because Davis tried to claim non-payment of rent,” Thompson said. “He never gave me rental suitability.”

Thompson said that landlord-tenant court is stacked in favor of landlords, and tenants rarely win anything more than what he did.

The PTU’s agitation at Gym’s town hall did not go ignored by the councilwoman’s staff. The tenants’ union reported that they received notice from Gym expressing interest in discussing strategies for gaining more support for Just Cause legislation.

The following Friday, April 13th,  Gym’s Director of Policy and Legislation, Shanee Garner, and Director of Constituent Services, Charlene Samuels,  met with Thompson and other PTU organizers at City Hall.

“I think we ended on common ground,” Garner said. “The Tenants Union is very passionate.”

Executive Director of the Tenants Union Representative Network (TURN), Phil Lord, said the next step after the town hall would be for City Council to take action. If City Council would commit to investing in more pro-bono legal assistance to represent low-income tenants, the illegal evictions would be addressed, Lord said.

He added other states and cities, such as New York City, are investing in better legal representation for tenants. “City Council needs to make sure people are represented, even if the city doesn’t have the money now,” Lord said.

Lord explained that organizations like TURN help tenants when their landlords are using “self-help” methods, such as changing locks or turning off utilities. He said when people call TURN with this emergency, TURN involves the police to get the tenants back into their units.

However, not many people know about TURN or other resources that could prevent their evictions. According to Lord, not many people know they need legal assistance in landlord-tenant court. “It’s a campaign, and we need to build awareness,” Lord said. “People were not aware of the eviction crisis before the town hall.”

“People don’t know they can’t be evicted for no reason,” he said. “People don’t realize how easy Just Cause protection is to get. City Council can just make it a requirement.”

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