Last week I met with Michele Cohen, a Philadelphia attorney and leading advocate for renters' rights to learn about the troubling epidemic of evictions in Philadelphia. 1 in 12 renters in Philadelphia face eviction every year, a far higher rate than New York City or other comparable cities. In visiting the Municipal Court, I saw first-hand the greatest challenge that tenants have when facing eviction. To no fault of their own, most tenants do not know their rights. Many of those who face eviction are low income individuals who cannot afford legal assistance. When matched up against their landlord’s attorneys in court, they are almost always going to get the short end of the stick. Michele Cohen saw these issues in her time as an attorney and therefore has dedicated herself to helping low-income individuals get represented in court.
Every day at 9:00 A.M. in Philadelphia dozens of men, women, and families file through the metal detectors at 1339 Chestnut Street for their arranged day in court. They are all renters and most are facing eviction.
Plenty of these people know that they are in the right—that it must be illegal for their landlord to refuse to fix their heating or fail to inspect their painted walls for lead and still expect rent. Yet many of these renters sadly do not know their rights. Without the proper knowledge or legal representation, most of these renters will end up in the back room of the court, away from the judge and the benches, settling their cases with their landlord’s lawyer. Almost always these settlements are a win for their landlords.
Without representation, at best tenants end up having to pay their landlords a hefty settlement. At worst, tenants are evicted, which devastates their credit scores and makes it far less likely that they will be able to find adequate housing again. With many of those facing eviction being the elderly and persons with disabilities, homelessness is sadly a common outcome.
In 2016 just 8.2% of tenants in Philadelphia were represented in court compared to 81% of landlords. While that’s still a woefully bad disparity in representation, according to Cohen that’s an improvement over the roughly 3% of tenants who were represented only a decade ago.
Much of that increase in representation is thanks to new resources such as the Landlord/Tenant Legal Help Center, which was started by Cohen over a decade ago, Community Legal Services, and the Tenant Legal Aid Referral Line.
Know Your Rights
Thanks to the hard work of Cohen and other advocates, new standards have been put in place in Philadelphia in recent years. Starting only a few months ago, the city's Fair Housing Ordinance added the “Good Cause” eviction law. Under this new law, landlords must show that they have a good, lawful reason to evict a tenant. “Good Cause” along with stricter enforcement of relatively unknown and unfollowed regulations around renting have somewhat improved tenants’ chances of staving off eviction.
What many tenants (and even many landlords) don’t know about renting are the regulations that the city places on landlords. To legally rent an apartment in Philadelphia, landlords need a renter’s license. Cohen estimates that only around 10% of landlords actually get this documentation. Without this license, landlords technically cannot collect rent. Many landlords will only get their license the day or so before they decide to evict a tenant. Since most tenants have never even heard of this license and cannot call their landlords out, landlords have gotten away with this practice in court. Landlords also need to give their tenants a Certificate of Rental Suitability, proving that their apartment is safe and up to code. Until recently no landlords did this.
These are just some of the ways that tenants can protect themselves from unlawful eviction. Of course, attorneys have far more experience and knowledge in this area than most renters ever have. Knowing your rights is crucial, and it can be the difference between winning or losing in court, but having legal representation will always be your safest bet in the case of eviction.
Advice for Renters
Q: Beyond reading my lease what can I do to avoid a disastrous situation with a landlord?
WYL: Well first of all go check out our reviews on whoseyourlandlord.com to make sure your future landlord has good reviews from your fellow Philadelphians. Nothing is more useful than reading first-hand experiences from other renters. Join our community and help keep landlords accountable.
Cohen: Also check the Phila.gov website to see if the property is licensed and whether there are any outstanding Department of Licensing and Inspection violations. Beyond this, you can also check to see how many legal disputes your landlord has been in.
Q: Are there red flags to look out for on a lease?
Cohen: Yes. Seek legal help. Go to Community Legal Services at 1424 Chestnut Street. They’re open every morning on Mondays through Thursday. Bring your lease and all communications with the landlord and they will be able to provide advice and counsel.
Q: If I am facing eviction, where do I go for my court date and what are my options?
WYL: In Philadelphia County you will go to 1339 Chestnut St and take the elevator to the 6th floor. Your case will likely be in courtroom 3 or 5. Make sure to bring a copy of your lease and any documents that may help your case against your landlord such as utility bills, rent receipts, or photos. Your case will likely not be determined by a judge but rather through a settlement between you and your landlord or their representatives. While your landlord may pressure you into agreeing to a settlement, it is your right to refuse and have the case be settled by a judge. If you are unrepresented, make sure you know all of your rights and present all the evidence you can in your defense.
Michele Cohen runs the Legal Help Center, a non-profit legal service agency whose mission is to provide full legal and related services to low income tenants in Philadelphia. Prior to the formation of the Legal Help Center, Cohen was the Supervising Attorney of the Philadelphia Landlord/Tenant Legal Help Center, housed in Philadelphia Municipal Court. The Help Center provides access to free information, advice and limited representation to unrepresented, low-income individuals of all ages who are facing eviction and other legal rental housing problems in Philadelphia. Prior to the establishment of the Philadelphia Landlord/Tenant Legal Help Center, Cohen worked as the Coordinator of Consumer and Tenant Rights at SeniorLAW Center, a nonprofit organization that protects the rights of older Pennsylvanians. Cohen began her legal career in private practice working at Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker and Montgomery McCracken. Cohen received her J.D. from the Washington College of Law and her B.S. from Pennsylvania State University.