When tenants of Dorset Court and Admiral Court in West Philadelphia got eviction notices in early April, many of them were shocked that they would only have three weeks to pack and leave their homes. But surprise turned to anger after they learned that the letters from their landlord were a phony intimidation tactic to scare them out — and he had never had a rental license.
"Basically, we were all hit with a nice little curveball," said Stephen Veney, 30, a Dorset Court resident for the past few years. "We thought we all had extra time to get things together. The next thing we know, we were hit with a note, given to us on the 9th of this month, saying we all had to be out by the 30th. None of us was ready for that."
A group of some 70 tenants received the phony eviction letters. Now they're organizing to fight the buildings' owner, Phillip Pulley of SBG Management, with support from Community Legal Services and the Philadelphia Tenants Union (PTU), who organized a rally outside the buildings at 47th and Locust streets on Monday afternoon. They said Pulley has rented out the apartments since 2015 without a rental license, and none of the rental payments were even legal. (SBG did not respond to requests for comment. The identity of the buildings' buyers and their future was not made public).
"A landlord who cannot legally evict anyone in this building without a rental license is trying to scare them out, by sending them these threatening letters saying utilities are going to be shut off and doors are going to be locked," said George Donnelly, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center (PILC). "What's happening here is a clear example of a power imbalance between hardworking tenants who've been paying their rent and doing what they're supposed to do as tenants, and landlords who hold the ultimate trump card, which is they can take someone's housing from right under their feet."
PILC and the Tenants Union support the Just Cause Eviction bill introduced in City Council by Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., which would legally require landlords evicting tenants to give ample notice and return their security deposits by move-out day to help with relocation costs. The bill is stalled in Council.
PTU has demanded Pulley give all the tenants 90 days, their security deposits back and $2,000 in relocation costs. Attorneys from CLS got the tenants a new court hearing on their eviction on May 24.
"He's collecting rent, and it's not legal," said Morris Brown, 82, a Korean War veteran who has lived in Dorset Court for a few years. "So, I'd like my money back."
Beyond the lack of rental licenses and shoddy conditions tenants described in their homes, the phony eviction letters are an increasingly common tactic in rapidly gentrifying sections of Philadelphia, said PTU organizers and attorneys.
"This is happening on a regular basis," said Trine Smith, a PTU organizer, who said she calls change in neighborhoods like West Philly not gentrification but "aggressive assault on black and brown families."
"I'd really like to have a heart to heart with some of these developers about what is happening here, how can we coexist and develop without displacement," Smith said. "They don't give no space for being human in a lot of these situations. They just see us as poor and expendable."
For Veney, his home at Dorset Court has been more of a burden than a benefit. Issues with mold in the building and lead pipes raised health concerns that made it impossible for his children to live with him, he said.
"I got this apartment so I could be a dad, bring the kids here, put them in this school," said Veney, a server at Red Lobster, pointing to nearby Henry Lea Elementary. "I almost got there."