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Letter to City Council Re: Bill 180430

Homeownership and Consumer

Letter to City Council Re: Bill 180430

Date Posted: 
05/15/2018

The following letter was sent to Philadelphia City Council on May 8, 2018.

TO: The Public Safety Committee, Chairperson Curtis Jones, Vice Chair Kenyatta Johnson, Committee Members Jannie Blackwell, Derek Green, William K. Greenlee, Helen Gym, and Al Taubenberger

CC: Councilmembers David Oh, Cindy Bass, Allan Domb, Bobby Henon, Brian O’Neill, and Mark Squilla

Dear Chairperson Jones and Members of the Public Safety Committee:

We are in receipt of Bill 180430, introduced by Councilmember Oh, regarding criminal and defiant trespassers.  Regretfully, it does not address the serious concerns we had with the previous iterations of the bill.[1]  The bill, while clearly well intentioned, fails to protect tenants, equitable owners, people repaying property taxes after their homes were sold at sheriff’s sale, and victims of domestic violence and elder abuse.  It will instead, unintentionally, allow bad actors like unlicensed landlords and scam artists to wrongfully obtain possession of a property through an expedited and legally sanctioned process.

First, the bill will allow the most unscrupulous landlords, most troublingly those without the required rental licenses, to avoid the standard eviction process and have tenants removed from their homes on a five-day timeline.  The only requirement for accessing the expedited process will be for the landlord to sign an affidavit stating that the tenants have no right to live at the property.  Tenants may not even know there is a hearing five days later in which to contest the allegations.  Moreover, tenants often lack proof that they have a lease – landlords decide whether leases are written or oral, whether to accept cash, and whether they will choose to comply with Philadelphia law.   This bill creates a loophole permitting landlords to bypass the established eviction process and to illegally remove tenants from their homes. The provisions in the bill penalizing false affidavits are inadequate to prevent bad actors from falsely claiming that legitimate occupants are trespassers.

Second, the bill does nothing to protect tenants who have been scammed by fraudsters that rent out properties which they do not own.  Every legal service lawyer serving tenants in the city has come across cases like these, where a person will say he or she owns an empty property, “rent” the property to an unsuspecting tenant who thinks the rental is legitimate, and then disappear after receiving the security deposit and several months of rent.  This bill criminalizes people who have been victims of this sort of fraud by placing them squarely within the category of “criminal and defiant trespassers.”

Third, the bill could hurt victims of domestic violence and elder abuse, by giving abusers a way to assert economic control over their victims. Often in situations of domestic violence and elder abuse, the abuser will ensure that his/her name is the sole name on the deed, another form of control over the victim. The victim may have few, if any, documents linking him/her to the residence – perhaps because the abuser hid or destroyed what documents existed. Under this bill, an abuser could merely allege  that the victim is a “criminal trespasser” and take advantage of a fast track ejectment process An abuser could use the threat of homelessness as a way to coerce their victim.

Fourth, the definition of “criminal and defiant trespasser” is so broad that it includes many people with legitimate ownership or occupancy rights to a property. Among them are people enrolled in property tax payment agreements with the Department of Revenue based on 14+ years continuous occupancy and property owners who retain the right of possession after tax sales during the statutory redemption period.

Fifth, the Bill oversimplifies who is or is not a lawful occupant and does not adequately protect legal and equitable owners.  The bill assumes that people with the right to be in a property will naturally have written documents to prove their rights, and that those documents are readily available to the occupant. In many cases, these assumptions are incorrect.

• There are more than 14,000 properties in Philadelphia titled in the name of people who are deceased. The heirs have rights to the property; they may just lack the paperwork or are stymied by Philadelphia’s tangled title epidemic.

• There is the problem of forged deeds - a common problem in Philadelphia. Even though the rightful owner still has his/her old deed, the bill would deem the fraudster the owner; the bill would then empower the fraudster to summarily remove the rightful owner.

• There are also many situations, such as an installment sales agreement, where an agreement signed by a previous owner remains valid even once the property is transferred.

• The limited carve-outs for occupants with a landlord-tenant relationship with an owner or prior owner do not adequately protect occupants who have ownership interests.

Sixth, the bill violates the Pennsylvania Constitution’s provisions for separation of powers by imposing procedures on the courts.  As an independent branch of government, only the court system can set its procedures.

While we do not believe that the existing criminal laws need to be changed, we agree that there is a need to review current administrative and court procedures so as to prevent delayed justice and irreparable harm to homeowners who are victimized by criminal trespassers. We support the formation of an interagency task force, including the police, the courts, the criminal justice community, and homeowner and tenant advocates, to propose improvements to current systems. However, Bill 180430 would ensnare many Philadelphia citizens who do not fit into this very narrow category of people at which the legislation is aimed.  Those innocent individuals and families would be classified as criminals and forcibly removed from their homes. We cannot support any legislation that will so clearly hurt the law-abiding citizens that we serve.

Regards,

George Donnelly, Esq., The Public Interest Law Center

Dana Goldberg, Esq., SeniorLAW Center

George Gould, Esq., Community Legal Services

Phil Lord, Esq., Tenant Union Representative Network

Rasheedah Phillips, Esq., Community Legal Services

Peter D. Schneider, Esq., Community Legal Services

Jennifer Schultz, Esq., Community Legal Services

Jonathan Sgro, Esq., Community Legal Services


[1] The Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development, and Homelessness voted down a similar predecessor bill, No. 170827, on November 6, 2017.