Death By Eviction

Three shootings in Philadelphia+A death in Allegheny County= A visit by the Pennsylvania House’s Housing and Community Development Committee.

On Aug. 24, law enforcement tried to remove William Hardison Sr. from a home in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood.

To say it didn’t go well would be an understatement. Hardison was shot and killed after a nearly seven-hour armed standoff with police and a confrontation that has led to 75 Pittsburgh police officers and Allegheny County sheriff’s deputies being placed on leave.

It’s also something that’s been on the mind of Kyle Webster, general counsel, and vice president of housing for Action Housing, Inc., a non-profit developer of affordable housing based in Pittsburgh.

As someone who has overseen evictions, the incident in Garfield made Webster think about the way they’re handled in Allegheny County. Even though the county requires constables and sheriffs with the proper training to be on hand and mental health professionals if needed, things still went horribly wrong.

“Poorly handled lockouts can be dangerous,” he said, “Last week we witnessed the worst-case scenario of what can happen when mental health processes aren’t taken into consideration despite the red flags. Now, lockout procedures in Pennsylvania have a death count, a death count that I genuinely believe was avoidable.”

But due to the number of shootings that have happened in Philadelphia during evictions over the last few months, it’s hard to believe that the death count isn’t larger.

Which is why the Housing and Community Development Committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives came to Philadelphia last week to hold public hearings on a series of bills — one introduced by State Sens. Sharif Street and Nikil Saval and another introduced by State Reps Morgan Cephas and Tarik Khan —designed to make the process of removing someone from a rental property or foreclosure more uniform.

Members of the committee heard from all sides of the debate — landlords, tenants, affordable housing groups and law enforcement — as they talked about ways to keep an already fraught process from becoming lethal.

In case you’re playing at home, Philadelphia is the only municipality in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that outsources it’s eviction services. Through the Landlord Tenant Office, private security forces go to homes and in some cases gives residents as little as 15 minutes to get their belongings out of the domicile before the locks are changed.

It hasn’t been without its challenges. During her eviction from the Girard Court Angel Davis, a woman who was shot in the head while being evicted from her Girard Court Apartment in North Philadelphia and has since sued the Landlord Tenant Office. Another tenant was shot in the leg during an eviction.

Heck, someone even shot a dog as a part of the process.

With all that shooting going on, City Councilmembers Jamie Gauthier and Kendra Brooks decided that City Council had to attempt to regulate the process. Now, LTO officers have to be accompanied by a constable when doing an eviction.

Problem is, Philadelphia County doesn’t have constables, which are law enforcement officers elected by the public. So, they borrow constables from other counties.

That’s not good enough, Gauthier said. With a sheriff’s department that already does some of what council is requesting like giving residents more notice of when an eviction is going to happen and providing resources for tenants that find themselves in this condition, paying for what she called “officers with discount training at discount prices” seems unnecessary.

“Constables from the suburbs have no accountability to us,” she said. “They’re armed, private citizens that don’t look like us. The sheriff’s office already satisfies many of the eviction reforms and we’ve already talked to them about doing more evictions. We’ve amended the Landlord Tenant Office, but to publically cement the reforms that Philadelphians need, the legislature must act.”

But while they agree that some reform is needed, organizations representing landlords caution that it shouldn’t come at their expense. James Bennett, a member of the Pennsylvania Residential Owners Association said his colleagues had no problem with some of the reforms. But they didn’t like the idea of letting tenants know when they’re being evicted, citing the possibility of instances like the one in Allegheny County.

They also didn’t like the increased costs connected to the proposed reforms. The cost for the LTO to evict someone has gone up to $350 for landlords, where it was not even half of that before. They also had issues with the possible cost increases that would come with having to use the Sheriff’s office for evictions, Bennett said.

But where he lost me was by bringing up John Green, who hasn’t been the Sheriff since 2009, as an excuse to not use that taxpayer elected office for evictions.

The part of the whole hearing that kind of stood out to me was the testimony of Xavier Carthan, a 61-year-old man who is currently living in a space where he testified that he’s being bitten by bugs.
He would like to find another place to live, but as someone who has been evicted, the National Tenant Network score this has left him with has made the process a non-starter.

“Having an eviction on your report is like having a criminal record,” he said.

By the end of the more than 3-hour hearing, it was hard not to look at the LTO office and the fact that it exists as just another means of making life harder for city residents who already have it tough because despite what folks occasionally tell City Council, Philadelphia is often so business friendly that it’s people unfriendly.

And that you’re willing to cut costs at the expense of the dignity of people in the poorest big city in America while simultaneously impeding their ability to find housing says a lot.

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