CLS Testimony on Just Cause Eviction Bill
CLS Testimony on Just Cause Eviction Bill
The following testimony was delivered by CLS Managing Attorney Rasheedah Phillips to Philadelphia City Council on February 13, 2018.
Good morning, my name is Rasheedah Phillips, and I am the Managing Attorney of the Housing Unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. We are grateful to have worked with City Council for several decades to protect tenants and promote safe, affordable housing. Thank you for the opportunity to testify on Just Cause (also known as good cause) protection bill, introduced by Councilman Jones, Councilwoman Parker, and Councilwoman Gym.
There are several facts that we as the poorest major city in the country must grapple with immediately. A basic summary of these facts is this: We are experiencing an affordable housing crisis, and this crisis is exacerbated by the average of 24,000 eviction filings each year and the unknown number of illegal evictions. Tenants are disproportionately burdened by that crisis. The community of renters has grown drastically over the past few years because of the foreclosure crisis, making us a City that is nearly half renters and half homeowners. Government intervention is required. Because we do not have the money to drastically increase our supply of affordable housing, it is necessary that some of that pressure be put back on the supply market to allow people to maintain the housing they currently occupy. We should not evict low income people based on arbitrary, illegal, or profit motivated reasons that lead to further destabilization of the housing rental market due to displaced tenants being forced to search for new housing in neighborhoods they can no longer afford to live in.
Just Cause protections are one low-cost tool for anti-displacement that meet a number of important goals and have broader implications, not least among them being protection of tenants from unjust and illegal evictions. According to a recently released report by an organization called Urban Habitat on the effectiveness of such protections, they state that the goals of Just Cause eviction laws “preserve social and economic diversity, provide tenants with stable and affordable rents, [and] maintain a variety of housing types.” Other cities have recognized that “evictions and other forms of displacement affect local businesses, school systems, and government agencies, as their employees, clients and constituents find themselves homeless, in new neighborhoods or cities, and/or with long commutes.” Housing stability for both renters and homeowners creates better outcomes for families, neighborhoods and local governments. Long-term stability of housing should be a goal for both homeowners and renters, as the stakes are equally high and the list of collateral consequences equally long when either a homeowner or a renter loses or faces loss of shelter.
At its core, Just Cause eviction protections require landlords to provide a “just” or “good cause” reason prior to evicting tenants. These reasons are typically defined by statute, and many states and hundreds of municipalities have some form of Just Cause eviction protection, while certain types of federally subsidized and state tax credit leases automatically contain such protections. Over 100 Municipalities and townships in New Jersey follow the Anti-Eviction Act, which provides for just cause eviction and provides in its legislative findings that due to homelessness, habitability, displacement, loss of affordable housing and other issues, “it is in the public interest for the State to maintain for citizens the broadest protections available under State eviction laws.” Since its passage in Santa Monica, a just cause protection known as Measure RR has cut by half all evictions where the basis is for reasons other than non-payment of rent. Some form of Just Cause Eviction is working well in several other California cities, including Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco and East Palo Alto, protecting many low income tenants from displacement.
Because Pennsylvania law contains no prevailing preemption issues that would jeopardize the implementation of a local “just cause” ordinance in the city of Philadelphia, (as long as the ordinance is drafted without using language that contradicts or is otherwise inconsistent with existing provisions of the Landlord Tenant Act), a Just Cause eviction law is legally permissible in a city or town in the state of Pennsylvania. Any provisions of state law that speak to the contents of residential leases—including mandatory lease termination notices—do not function to inhibit the ability of City Council to further regulate the relationship between landlords and tenants in its jurisdiction. As it stands, state law allows leases to waive any notice requirements to the tenant. Few tenants who have this waiver provision in their lease understand what it means, or end up signing the lease anyway because they don’t have any backup options or real bargaining power.
And while it is true that many landlords in Philadelphia are small, mom and pop landlords, it is also true that the power dynamic between landlord and tenant tips heavily in favor of the landlord in most landlord-tenant relationships, no matter how big or small the landlord is. 85% of landlords using the legal eviction process are able to obtain legal representation to assist with evicting a tenant, versus 5-8% of tenants who are able to obtain counsel and advice. Just cause eviction can fix this imbalance by providing tenants with a clear written notice that the landlord is seeking to end the relationship based on legally permissible reasons.
As the materials from the Philadelphia Tenant’s Union explain, Just Cause eviction does not mean that tenants cannot be evicted under any circumstances, or that a landlord has no right to evict, or that it will be harder to evict problem tenants. Just Cause helps to clarify and specify under what circumstances a lease termination or eviction is legal and justified. It gives tenants a fair opportunity to understand what the issues with the tenancy are, under the terms of the lease, and an opportunity to remedy alleged lease violations as permitted by the terms of the lease. If the tenants don’t remedy the issue, or if the tenant is substantially violating the terms of the lease with no remedy available, landlords can exercise their legal right to terminate the lease and evict the tenant as they normally would.
We have countless stories of tenants who could have benefitted from a just cause eviction protection, stories of tenants who have faced racial, sexuality, gender, family, ethnicity, and disability discrimination from landlords, tenants forced out of their homes due to lack of repairs; stories of tenants intimidated into not complaining about substandard housing conditions that exacerbate health and safety problems; or tenants who received eviction filings from disgruntled landlords that have resulted in virtual blacklisting for future homes and opportunities for stability. I could be here for hours telling these stories, and we will hear from tenants in the Philadelphia Tenants Union who will highlight their own stories. Please keep in mind that these experiences are not the exception – they speak for hundreds of others who have been unjustly and violently torn from their homes and communities based on reasons that, if you dig a little deeper, cannot be legally justified; or, for reasons that we should no longer stand to justify as a moral, humane society. Their experiences and traumas will speak best to why a Just Cause bill is necessary, and why such protections will help lead the way to creating a more equitable, inclusive, safe, and healthy future for all Philadelphians.
Like the hundreds of other cities and towns around the country where similar policies have been successful, we strongly urge the passing of this Just Cause legislation, which is well-balanced and has taken many perspectives into careful consideration. We look forward to continuing to work with City Council, housing advocates, landlords, and community members to continue to support and develop this policy.
 “Strengthening Communities Through Rent Control and Just-Cause Evictions: Case Studies from Berkely, Santa Monica, and Richmond,” pg,5, Urban Habitat, January 2018, http://urbanhabitat.org/sites/default/files/UH%202018%20Strengthening%20Communities%20Through%20Rent%20Control_0.pdf
 Id. at pg. 12
 Anti-Eviction Act of 1975; N.J.S.A. 2A:18-53 through 2A:18-84.