Penn Law students are mobilizing in a local fight for tenants’ rights, and spent last week collecting signatures for an open letter to the Philadelphia City Council in support of a bill aimed at protecting renters from unjust eviction and displacement. The bill, which is currently working its way through City Council and may soon come up for a vote, would protect tenants by preventing landlords from terminating tenants’ leases without just cause.
On November 15, Colleen O’Conor L’20 and Sam Whillans L’21 were part of a group of students who set up a table in The Clock where passersby could learn more about the legislation, and sign onto the open letter. According to the letter, “[i]n 2016, Philadelphia had the fourth highest number of evictions for a large city: 22,062 evictions were filed, resulting in 10,264 evictions.” Apart from evictions, many renters also experience forced moves as a result of landlords’ abrupt termination of leases and other measures. “9.3% of renters in the Philadelphia metropolitan area were forced to move from their homes in 2015, the second highest rate of forced moves in the country,” the letter explains. Poor and working-class tenants tend to be the most affected.
The proposed legislation would update Philadelphia’s housing code with what is commonly called “Good Cause Eviction” protections, which would prohibit termination of a lease without a valid reason such as habitually late or non-payment of rent, breach of a material lease term, or refusal of a rent increase. The requirement of good cause would prevent landlords from terminating tenants’ leases for discriminatory reasons or in retaliation for complaints and repair requests.
The open letter urges city councilors to support the legislation, arguing that it “is an incredibly modest starting place for increasing tenant protections,” and that “[l]andlords should not have City Council’s tacit endorsement in terminating a lease because of who a tenant is or because the tenant has requested needed repairs.”
So far, the letter has collected 169 signatures. O’Conor explained that the need for Good Cause eviction legislation has resonated with students both due to their own experience in the rental market and because of the effect they’ve seen on their pro bono clients.
“As law students, many of us work with clients in pro bono projects who are dealing with the very traumatic process of being evicted and displaced,” she said. “Also, we ourselves are often renting within a largely student rental market where landlords have allowed things to fall into disrepair. We want to see increased tenant protections.”
During the Toll Public Interest Center’s annual Public Interest Week in October, the Walk-In Legal Assistance pro bono and the Housing Rights Project co-hosted a panel discussion on the legislation. The panel featured speakers from Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Tenants Union, two local organizations helping to push for passage of the bill. After the event, Penn Law students in the school’s National Lawyers Guild chapter began informally organizing to lend their support and soon drafted the open letter, which they plan to present to the City Council in the coming weeks.
“I give full credit to the Philadelphia Tenants Union for getting the whole thing started,” said Whillans. “We hope to contribute to the work that CLS and the Philadelphia Tenants Union are already doing, showing that [unjust eviction] is a city-wide issue.”
O’Conor and Whillans hope that signing onto the open letter will be just the beginning of students’ involvement in tenant organizing.
The push for Good Cause legislation “is increasing students’ exposure to tenant organizing, and community organizing work more generally,” said Whillans. “We’re working closely with the Tenants Union on this, and we hope to continue to build that relationship and get more students involved in working on tenants’ rights.”