Ms. Baker is a lifelong Philadelphian who now lives with her daughters and their families in Germantown. Shortly after moving into her Hunting Park apartment in 2014, Ms. Baker notified her property manager that there was no heat in one of the bedrooms, making it unusable during the winter. The heating system in the rest of the house also regularly malfunctioned, causing her utility bills to skyrocket. After repeated demands to her landlord to fix these problems, she received a letter from Glenn M. Ross, her landlord’s attorney, demanding back rent, late fees, legal fees, and threatening to file an eviction lawsuit against her.
Like thousands of low-income tenants, Ms. Baker did not have an attorney to represent her. Last year, for example, more than 24,000 Philadelphians were sued in Landlord-Tenant Court. And while 81% of landlords had lawyers to guide them through proceedings, over 90% of tenants did not. This lack of access to representation leaves tenants without power to complain about poor conditions in their homes, or make landlords follow Philadelphia law. And, as happened to Ms. Baker, it lets collection lawyers sue for money that tenants do not owe.
Philadelphia Code states that a landlord must provide tenants with a Certificate of Rental Suitability when they sign a lease. These Certificates, which are issued by the Department of Licenses & Inspections (L&I), require landlords to affirmatively verify their properties are suitable to be lived in, and can only be issued when L&I determines there are no outstanding code violations. When a landlord fails to comply with this requirement, renters do not owe rent. And, according to the complaint, when collection lawyers demand this rent, they violate the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).