How Can Philly Enforce Building Codes When 40,000 Rental Properties Don’t Have Licenses?

The Philadelphia Inquirer 

Sierra Robinson woke up early Monday morning to pounding on her door. The building she’d lived in for nearly eight years was about to be locked, security told her. She had five minutes to grab what she could and leave.

Frantically, Robinson started tossing her belongings out her fourth-story window: clothing, a small radio, pots and pans.

“Once the police came and we went downstairs, there was no way to get back in,” Robinson said. “They told us if we tried to get back in, we were going to jail. I was like, ‘Seriously? When you came in, you saw my refrigerator, my couch, my kitchen … my bed, it’s all still there, I live there.’ ”

Robinson was one of about 20 people locked out that day. She had plenty of notice that the property managers wanted her gone from the apartment she shared with her fiance, two brothers, and niece. An initial notice that the building would close had arrived in April. But she considered it an empty threat. She knew the building had no rental license — that expired in 2015. And without a license, she couldn’t be evicted.

“By legal right, that’s still my apartment,” she said. “If ya’ll didn’t evict me from there, it’s still my house.”

While that is the law in Philadelphia — no rental license, no eviction — the building closed Monday all the same, and Robinson moved in with her mom, who is also housing six other family members.

SBG Management oversees more than a dozen properties in the city, at least half of which do not have active rental licenses, city records show. As Philadelphia aims to crack down on illegal lock-outs and negligent landlords, it’s also reckoning with a major blind spot: Close to 40,000 rental properties are unlicensed.

The owner of SBG, Phillip Pulley, said the city makes it nearly impossible to get and hold on to those licenses, given that a property needs to be violation-free to qualify. He said tenants withhold rent in properties they know are unlicensed, making it difficult to keep up with repairs.

Tenants-rights lawyers say SBG and other unlicensed landlords should know the rules and play by them. The rules are in place for a reason — to prevent housing stock from falling into disrepair and tenants from living in squalid conditions.

“Phillip Pulley and his management company … own hundreds of rental units in the Philadelphia area,” said Rachel Garland, an attorney with Community Legal Services who has been working with tenants in Admiral and Dorset. ” All landlords, but especially sophisticated businessmen, such as Mr. Pulley, should know the basic licensing and eviction procedures and adhere to them.”

In Philadelphia, courts recently started requiring proof of a rental license to file an eviction, which has caused an uptick in illegal lock-outs, Garland said.

“Some landlords are choosing to comply and some are trying to find backdoor means or using intimidation tactics to get tenants out,”she said.

In all, the city estimates 20 percent of the 260,000 rental units are unlicensed. That presents a tricky problem to officials trying to enforce building codes: How can they hold landlords operating off the books accountable when they don’t know who they are?

“To be clear, that 40,000, they run the gamut,” said Rebecca Swanson, planning director of the city’s Department of Licenses & Inspections. “From somebody who just has a house and moves to the suburbs and doesn’t want to sell yet and it’s a beautiful house that they keep up … all the way down to our slumlords who own a ton of properties and are purposefully flouting the law.”

Swanson said L&I is working with Peco to get lists of properties with multiple meters, which usually indicates a rental building. They can cross-check that list with licenses on file.

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