One downside of Philly’s revitalization: a high eviction rate

Councilman Curtis Jones Jr.’s “Good Cause” bill aims to change this.

Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. speaks about the Good Cause Bill at North Philly's Church of the Advocate

Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. speaks about the Good Cause Bill at North Philly's Church of the Advocate

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn
michaelawinberg-creditdanyahenninger-feb2018

New houses and apartment complexes continue to proliferate throughout Philly’s neighborhoods. But when developers raze an old building to make way for something more modern, what happens to the people who lived there before?

Sometimes, those longtime residents are served with an eviction notice.

In 2016, more than 10,000 people were evicted in Philadelphia. The numbers add up to a 3.84 percent eviction rate, which is 1.14 percent higher than the national average. Some of those evictions were surely because of delinquency on rent or other good cause, but many of them were not.

For District 4 Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., the wake-up call was the loss of one vote.

In February 2017, the owners of the Penn Wynn Apartments suddenly evicted all the people who lived in the 231-unit building to redevelop it for younger tenants. The residents — who lived in the heart of Jones’s district — would have to move out by June 1.

Jones happened to run into one of the residents who was being forced to leave. She had voted for the councilman since 2007, she told him, but she wouldn’t be able to any longer. Because of the eviction, she would be living outside the district.

Before that moment, the Northwest Philly councilman told Billy Penn, he thought gentrification and redevelopment were the problems of other neighborhoods — like District 1, which encompasses Point Breeze, and District 5 in North Philly. But after hearing about that lost vote, he realized it was his problem, too.

“That hit close to home for me,” Jones said. “I thought…this is going to continue to happen more often than not.”

Last October, Jones introduced Bill 170854. Appropriately dubbed the Good Cause bill, it would require landlords to have good cause for evicting their tenants. On Wednesday evening, the Philadelphia Tenants Union, which has been vocal and active in raising awareness of the issue, hosted an event in support of the bill at North Philly’s Church of the Advocate.

If the bill became law, landlords would have to have “good cause” before serving an eviction notice. As defined by the proposed legislation, some of those causes are:

  • The tenant isn’t complying with a specific part of the lease
  • The tenant isn’t paying rent
  • The tenant has caused damage to the property
  • The landlord or their relative is moving into the unit

Karen Harvey knows the issue first-hand. A former Penn Wynn resident, Harvey was evicted after she lived in her apartment for eight years. She had moved in following the death of her Aunt Loretta, who lived there 40 years before that.

To Harvey, a 65-year-old retired social worker, eviction came as a total shock. Given four months to relocate, she visited about 20 properties. Each time, there was a $40 application fee, and some of them were several-floor walk-ups — difficult to navigate for Harvey, who walks with a cane.

Time after time, she was denied apartments because she had an eviction on her record.

Karen Harvey, 65, was evicted from her Penn Wynn apartment last year

Karen Harvey, 65, was evicted from her Penn Wynn apartment last year

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

“It was scary,” Harvey said. “I wanted to move at my own pace, to save money, to look for my own place.”

When Harvey was finally accepted into her new apartment, it was because the landlord was a friend of her family.

Under the proposed legislation, development like this could still count as good cause for eviction. However, the landlord would be required to return the security deposit before the eviction, while the Penn Wynn owners were not mandated to return residents’ security deposits until 30 days after the eviction.

That money, Jones said, could fund application fees that residents have to pay while looking for a new apartment.

“A lot of Philadelphians don’t have the money,” Jones said. “They rely on the return of the security deposit and first month’s down for relocation purposes.”

The bill is on its second reading in City Council. Though Tenants Union reps told Billy Penn they’d heard a vote would happen this month, it hasn’t yet been officially scheduled, Jones said — he’s still working on rallying support from his fellow city councilmembers.

Regardless of the outcome, the proposed legislation came too late for Harvey, who relocated to 52nd and Chestnut last summer. From her new neighborhood, she remembers fondly her old apartment at Penn Wynn. It’s where she hosted Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. Her daughter and grandchildren slept over every Christmas Eve, and she stocked the tree with gifts for them each year.

Even before she moved into the apartment, Harvey still spent almost every day there. She got some of her best Southern cooking lessons from her Aunt Loretta, who grew up in Louisiana.

“The good memories were family memories,” Harvey said. “And I did make friends there, some who didn’t end up as well off as I did, who had to move places they would rather not have gone.”

Her biggest fear moving forward is being hit with another eviction. She sees the rapid development of her new West Philly neighborhood, and she worries that she’ll get kicked out when her lease is up in July.

Said Harvey: “I’m not ready to leave yet.”