What Corrine Morris wanted most was a home for her family. Morris, 25, had just found out she was pregnant last spring when she went looking for a house to rent for herself, her boyfriend, and her two-year-old daughter. They settled on a three-bedroom row-house in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood. The place was undergoing renovations, but, Morris said, the agent assured her it would be livable by the time she moved in.
After signing a lease and paying first and last month’s rent and a security deposit, Morris said, she moved in—only to find the water pressure was still so weak that the only working faucet was in the basement. “We would fill buckets from the basement and carry them upstairs to flush the toilet,” Morris recalled. “We boiled water on the stove for cleaning purposes.”
Instead of sharing a family home, she had to send her daughter to live with relatives in a house more amenable to basic hygiene, and her boyfriend’s three children were never allowed to visit.
It took months to resolve the problem, and once the water did come on in the rest of the house, it leaked through the wall and a coating of black mold appeared behind the stove in the kitchen. Due to the water and other ongoing issues, Morris said, she withheld the $950 per month rent until the landlord’s attorney, Glenn Ross, served her with a notice terminating the lease and demanding $3,951 for back rent and fees.
Morris was fortunate enough to have legal representation from the Public Interest Law Center (PILC) in Philadelphia, and when the dispute reached landlord-tenant court, the bill was withdrawn. While she received some measure of justice, her case is just one among many in the city where landlords sue tenants for rent they are not legally entitled to collect, her attorneys have argued. Most of the defendants are poor, don’t have lawyers, and go up against experienced landlord attorneys if they do try to fight back in court.
“It’s amazing how common this story is,” PILC attorney Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, who represented Morris, told me. “It’s both horrible and horribly common.”
Urevick-Ackelsberg and other public interest lawyers represent evicted tenants on an individual basis, but the volume of cases is far too great for them to make a widespread impact. Out of 22,573 cases filed in Philadelphia's landlord-tenant court in 2016, for example, only 8 percent of tenants had attorneys, according to local publication PlanPhilly. Another study found that the eviction rate in the city was at least 7 percent every year between 2010 and 2015.
The scary part is that Philadelphia actually has relatively strong laws to protect tenants. However, without legal representation, tenants have no way to enforce such laws—if they even know about them—and many don’t have the capital to pay two month’s rent and deposit on a new place, making it impossible to move out if their current abode is inhabitable. “Every person has legal right to basic safe housing, with water, heat and structural safety,” Urevick-Ackelsberg said. “But when you're low income, with no attorney, you have no real leverage to demand that the landlord keeps the property in safe and habitable condition.”
In an effort to address illegal evictions on a more systemic level, the PILC filed a federal class action lawsuit with Morris as one of the plaintiffs, alleging that Ross, the landlord’s lawyer who served the eviction, violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) by soliciting money that wasn’t actually owed. Another plaintiff, Cassandra Baker, said she was served an eviction letter by Ross seeking back rent after she complained about her apartment’s malfunctioning heater. Ross did not respond to request for comment, though he filed a response her complaint denying the bulk of the allegations.
The lawsuit hinges on a city requirement mandating that the landlord present a certificate of suitability to tenants. The rule is regularly disregarded, but without it, Urevick-Ackelsberg said, the landlord cannot legally collect rent. He hoped the suit might force landlords to follow at least one aspect of local law by discouraging their lawyers from filing evictions without that certificate. “There is a small group of collection lawyers who do almost all of the evictions,” the attorney told me. “If you get them to change their practices, you start to create fairly widespread change.”
“It's not about any one lawyer,” he added. “It's about a system where tenants are getting run over.”
There is clear precedent for using the FDCPA in landlord-tenant litigation, according to Mary Spector, a professor at the SMU Dedman School of Law in Dallas, Texas. In 1998, the Second Circuit US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the FDCPA could be used to sue landlords under the justification that back-rent is debt. Other cases have affirmed that attorneys can be liable when they wrongly collect on behalf of their clients.
When it was passed in 1978 and last amended in 2010, the FDCPA laid out a number of rules that collectors must follow to legally seek to recover debt, notably that they cannot misrepresent the amount a debtor owes or use other false or deceptive representations. “It doesn't seem like a stretch to me to have lawyers treated as debt collectors for purposes of federal law when representing clients who may be landlords,” Spector said. “If the city ordinance makes it unlawful for the landlord to collect rent, the collector cannot go and try and collect something which is not authorized.”
The suit could have repercussions elsewhere in the nation, as a harsh eviction climate is not unique to Philadelphia. A study by real estate website Redfin ball-parked the total number of evictions in the United States in 2015 at 2.7 million, and also found that 37 percent of renters pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent, and one in four pay 50 percent or more, a reflection of their precarious financial straits.
While this particular lawsuit relies on local Philadelphia law, the general principle behind it could apply to other jurisdictions as well, according to National Consumer Law Center attorney Charles Delbaum, who is collaborating on the lawsuit with the PILC. “What many of these fair debt cases share is an assertion that the debt collector is trying to collect money that isn't owed,” Delbaum said.
In the meantime, Morris and her boyfriend were living separately with relatives, regrouping while they attempt to save money to try, once again, to secure a home for their family. “We’re all torn apart,” she told me. “The whole point of moving was to be together.”
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