PHILADELPHIA – On June 21, Councilmember Kendra Brooks (At-Large) and Councilmember Jamie Gauthier (3rd District) held a hearing to examine the role of the Landlord-Tenant Officer, a private attorney selected by the First Judicial District Court to enforce evictions and conduct on-site lockouts of residents, and present widespread concerns about lack of oversight, training, ethics guidelines, and public accountability.
Councilmembers Brooks and Gauthier announced the hearing after the shooting of 35-year-old Angel Davis on March 29. A deputized private contractor hired by the Landlord Tenant Officer shot Ms. Davis in the face while attempting to serve an eviction. Ms. Davis suffered severe brain injuries and was unable to attend the hearing.
“The Landlord-Tenant Officer and their contractors act under the authority of the government and receive millions of dollars in payments for conducting the grave public act of removing someone from their home,” said Councilmember Kendra Brooks (At-Large). “And yet there is no written contract governing their actions. There are no standards for how they should conduct an eviction. There is no defined method to hold the Landlord Tenant Officer or their contractors accountable to the public.”
“In the wake of the shooting of Angel, Councilmember Brooks and I have spent months investigating what happened and how our city conducts evictions,”said Councilmember Jamie Gauthier (3rd District), Chair of City Council’s Housing Committee. “What we have found is a dangerous, traumatic, and deeply harmful system that is in urgent need of reform. We cannot allow already-economically violent evictions to turn physically violent ever again!”
At the hearing, witnesses recounted stories of tenants who were forced from their homes with little to no advance notice. Those residents who were at home at the time of an unexpected lockout had only ten minutes to gather belongings. Some tenants were forced to leave behind critical medical equipment or to abandon pets. Experts from nearby cities testified about lengthy manuals (77 pages in Pittsburgh and 236 pages in New York) that establish protocols and guidelines designed to make evictions safer and more humane. Philadelphia has no written guidelines for evictions.
“I’m a senior with disabilities, and I was evicted in February,” said Philadelphia resident Mark Person, who suffered trauma and physical ailments from the stress of the unexpected lockout in addition to losing his cat. “This big guy said he was a sheriff and I had to leave the premises. He never showed ID, just came in. I was not dressed at the time nor aware they were coming. As I was trying to figure out what to take with me, he looked at his watch and said I had ten minutes and he had others to serve and I had to hurry up and be out. There was no notice or courtesy. Just him standing with his hand atop his pistol like a cowboy western.”
“We have had cases where an older tenant was locked out and their pet was locked in the home, with no food or water available for the pet,” said Jacob Speidel, Director of Tenant Rights at Senior LAW Center. “We have had one case recently where a tenant was locked out. Their dog was removed to an animal shelter. When the tenant made it to the shelter to retrieve their dog, the dog had already been killed by the shelter.”
“I did not understand why this was happening,” said Xavier Carthen, a Philadelphia resident who was evicted from his home by a private security contractor. “I had been working with my property manager to get caught up on my rent and did not have any warning that this was coming. Because I was completely unprepared for this situation I was in a state of shock filled with so much confusion! I immediately started trying to put out food and fresh litter for my cats. I did not know this was coming and was worried they would be locked inside for a long time. I had no time to gather my belongings and just grabbed what I could.”
“One of my clients was being evicted and was struggling to pack because she was an amputee without properly fitted prostheses,” said Shamus Brennan, housing attorney with AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania. “She was also desperately searching for accessible housing while I begged for more time from the landlord’s attorney. Ultimately, the team of lawyers and social workers supporting her were told of the scheduled eviction on the day of the lockout. The average temperature that day was 32 degrees.”
“I represented a tenant who was locked out of her property without critical medical equipment,” said Sherry Thomas, Director of Housing with the Legal Clinic for the Disabled. “She had double knee replacements and was getting around her home very slowly, with the assistance of a walker and an assistive rolling chair. One morning, after she had just woken up and while still in her pajamas, she heard loud banging at her door. When she answered, she was confronted by the landlord tenant officer who told her she was being evicted and that she had 10 minutes to get her things. She had no idea what was going on. It turns out, her landlord got a judgment against her without her knowing.”
Testifying about Allegheny County’s system for evictions, Kyle Webster, the Vice President of Housing and General Counsel of ACTION-Housing, said, “The individual typically enforcing the lock-out is the Constable. The Constables undergo extensive training and are held to the standards outlined in the Constable Handbook, a 77 page guidebook that clearly outlines expectations across the many tasks they are responsible for in the County, to include lock outs. Their mandatory training includes, amongst other things, de-escalation and proper firearm handling training. Things like proper notice, clear announcement of who a public official is, and proper training are easy, obvious elements of a comprehensive local landlord tenant policy.”
Testifying about New York City’s system of evictions, Nikita Salehi, a housing attorney with Mobilization for Justice, said, “The City of New York has a 236-page manual, the Marshall’s Manual, with guidelines for conducting evictions, including what to do if there are children in the home or if there are any elderly people or disabled people.”
“The system in New York has evolved in response to a series of unfortunate incidents,” added Leah Goodridge, who is also a housing attorney with Mobilization for Justice. “Two Black women died during evictions, and they both had mental health issues. That’s why it’s so important to have resources available during the evictions.”
Testifying on behalf of the Philadelphia Bar Association, Chancellor Mark Zucker named three goals for the Landlord-Tenant Office: transparency, accountability and training. “Included within those goals is the necessity of written protocols that would guide the hiring, supervision and training of deputy landlord tenant officers in the field,” said Chancellor Zucker. “Along the way, our hope is that additional resources can be allocated for access to social services, homeless services and mediation in order to avoid disruptive displacement and provide alternate pathways for those caught in the eviction process.”
Testifying on behalf of the Pennsylvania Apartment Association, Andre Del Valle, Vice President of Government Affairs, said, “The Pennsylvania Apartment Association would welcome any opportunity to continue to work with this committee, and all stakeholders who would be impacted by any potential changes to the existing structure, whether that is at the local level with Councilmember Brooks or the state level with my State Senator Nikil Saval or Senator Street who have also shared concerns.”