About 15 percent of the landlord population in Philadelphia consists of landlords who do not even have a rental license.
On Feb. 1, state Rep. Jared Solomon invited policy experts, state legislators and the public to discuss absentee landlords and the problems they pose for many local residents.
In a roundtable hosted at the Philadelphia Protestant Home, Solomon and panel experts talked about how residents are sometimes forced into unlivable conditions if a landlord is absent when repairs are needed.
Solomon said it had come to his attention that many people in the area were renting from absentee landlords.
“There would be people in my community who rented many different properties, and many times they would be living in different states,” Solomon said. “When a tenant had an issue, they had difficulty contacting that particular landlord.”
Solomon also said a lot of the landlords spoke a different language, which added a “language barrier” between landlord and tenant.
“So you’re dealing with a plumbing issue, you’re trying to contact your landlord without good contact information, and on top of that both of you speak another language,” he said.
Panel member George Donnelly, who represents low-income tenants in legal proceedings at the Public Interest Law Center, recounted an instance where a family he represented had raw sewage in the bottom floor of their house for several weeks.
“The house was marked unfit for human habitation,” he said. “What the landlord did after is file an eviction complaint.”
The family had to stay in hotels and stay with family and friends for several weeks, at their own expense. The landlord filed for eviction when they told him they would not be paying rent for those seven weeks.
One thing the panel members agreed on is that while there were laws in place, there were no “teeth” that ensured they were followed.
Rebecca Swanson, planning director for the city Department of Licenses and Inspections, said about 15 percent of the landlord population in Philadelphia consists of landlords who do not have a rental license. That means of roughly 260,000 rental units in the city that require rental licenses, only about 220,000 actually have one.
Swanson said landlords are fined if they are discovered, but court time and resources are severely limited.
“You can get away with it,” she said.
According to the American Community Survey, which is census-based, there are about 273,000 rental units in Philadelphia, 13,000 of which are public housing that do not require rental licenses.
She also said not every violation makes it into court, and those unlicensed landlords who also have property code violations are prioritized.
Donnelly said tenants who do not have licenses are not legally allowed to collect rent.
The only restriction unlicensed landlords face is they cannot file for eviction of their tenants, a topic that creates an entirely different set of problems.
Donnelly also spoke about retaliatory evictions.
“Pennsylvania has an aging housing stock, and many rental properties have dangerous conditions that affect the health, safety and well-being of families,” he said.
Landlords have a legal right to maintain properties they are renting to livable conditions. However, Donnelly said tenants living in squalor often choose not to exercise their rights for receiving maintenance and upkeep.
“They fear retaliation, and for good reason,” Donnelly said. “Landlords often respond to repair requests with eviction notices.”
As the law exists in Pennsylvania now, retaliatory evictions are not prohibited.
“If a tenant on a month-to-month lease complains about a faulty heating system in the winter, and the landlord evicts her in response, she and her kids must leave,” Donnelly said.
Paul Cohen, a founding member of law firm Cohen, Willwerth and Marraccini in Southampton, said the Landlord and Tenant Act in the state hasn’t been properly revised since 1951. Cohen said there have been minor “tweaks” to the law that end up just making the thick volume of laws harder to comprehend.
“The Landlord and Tenant Act should be rewritten in whole,” Cohen said. He cited the volume’s complex layout and numbering system as a factor that makes it convoluted to look up particular laws and intimidating to potential landlords in the area.
“Landlords have been leaving Philadelphia in droves because they can’t comply with all these laws and regulations,” Cohen said.
Cohen and Phil Lord, the executive director of the Tenant Union Representative Network who also sat on the panel, have worked for three years to craft a uniform rewrite of the act.
“This is a uniform bill available for all states to adopt,” he said. “And it is a great starting place.” ••