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Opinion

Pennsylvania’s Dangerous Landlord-Tenant Law Persists | Michael Coard | Opinion

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by Michael Coard, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
August 23, 2023

Back in April, I wrote about the serious problem of landlord-tenant officers in Pennsylvania, who have extraordinary power with very little training. I detailed the March case of 35-year-old Angel Davis, shot in the head and nearly killed by a so-called landlord-tenant officer while he served her with eviction papers in Philadelphia.

At a rally in Philadelphia on Monday, protesters demanded an end to what Asantawaa Nkrumah-Ture, a member of the Justice 4 Angel Davis Now campaign, called the “landlord-terrorist officer eviction system,” WHYY reported. “It’s dangerous and it serves no useful purpose,” Nkrumah-Ture said.

To review: “Landlord-tenant officers” are not police officers, not deputy sheriffs, and not even constables. They don’t undergo the testing and training that police, deputy sheriffs and constables do. They do evictions for profit. 

Yet, these people who, in my opinion, are nothing more than untested and unchecked mercenary gunslingers, are allowed to confront tenants, violently at times. And as of Tuesday, they’ll once again be able to conduct evictions in Philadelphia

On July 25, Davis filed a lawsuit seeking $50,000 in damages. The suit names Marisa Silberstein Shuter, who serves as Philadelphia’s chief landlord-tenant officer, Lamont Daniels,  the landlord-tenant officer who allegedly shot Davis, Odin Properties, and Girard Courts Apartments, where the incident took place. 

As reported by WHYY, the lawsuit “faults Girard Court Apartments for failing to investigate Shuter’s background and qualifications before hiring the Landlord and Tenant Office to  carry out the eviction” and “failing to investigate Shuter’s hiring criteria for her deputies … among other claims.”  

Sadly, what happened to Davis was not an aberration in the city because Pennsylvania law– as currently worded– does not explicitly prohibit the use of landlord-tenant officers. And on July 18, another female tenant was shot and wounded by a landlord-tenant officer during an eviction.  So far, landlord-tenant officers have fired shots in as many as three separate incidents in just four months.     

The day after Davis was shot, Shuter temporarily stopped handling evictions, leaving the work to the sheriff’s office until this week.

The Inquirer reported that Shuter– who earns $95 from landlords for service of each writ of eviction– is “the daughter of former Municipal Court President Judge Alan K. Silberstein, an ally of longtime Democratic Party leader Bob Brady, while her mother, Dveral Silberstein, held a seat on the city’s Board of Revision and Taxes. After earning a law degree from Temple University in 1993, Shuter was hired by her father as a court administrator. Her husband, David C. Shuter, was elected to Municipal Court in 2006 ….”

Nepotism, anyone? 

Fortunately, a day after the first shooting, state Senators Nikil Saval and Sharif Street announced plans to introduce SB 732, which would amend Chapter 29 of Title 42 to prohibit private landlord-tenant officers from evicting people. On June 2, it was referred to the judiciary committee.

Philadelphia City Councilors Kendra Brooks and Jamie Gauthier held a hearing on June 21 regarding “widespread concerns about [landlord-tenant officers’] lack of oversight, training, ethics guidelines, and public accountability.” And at a July 25 press conference, Councilor Brooks described Shuter’s office as “reckless” and Councilor Gauthier was on point noting the ugly fact that evictions disproportionately affect Black mothers. 

Before dealing with the eviction process, tenants throughout Pennsylvania should know their basic rights in order to avoid such an action. Therefore, understand the following:

Landlords must adhere to the federal government’s Fair Housing Act of 1968 and to the pertinent consumer protection sections of the state government’s Landlord Tenant Act of 1951. Together, the applicable parts of those laws provide safeguards from discrimination based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, family status, and age. Landlords, based on those two aforementioned laws, must not require exorbitant security deposits and must not illegally withhold security deposits, perform unauthorized credit checks, or require the signing of ambiguous and otherwise vague leases.     Landlords must respect a tenant’s right to privacy. Landlords must accept, when legally appropriate and when sufficiently advance notice is given, “repair and deduct” expenses from tenants, which means allowing tenants to pay for the repair of a housing problem and subtract that cost from the rental amount. Landlords must provide a “warranty of habitability,” which includes but is not limited to heat, hot water, sanitation, functioning utilities, and access to cooling air. As explained by Northwestern Legal Services, “In 1979, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that landlords renting residential real estate have a legal duty to provide their tenants a living space that is safe, sanitary and reasonably comfortable. The court called this the ‘warranty of habitability’ … [which] cannot be waived in a lease because it is a legal duty imposed on the landlord as a matter of law.”

For more information about all of the many federal and many state rights, log onto the Housing Equality Center of Pennsylvania’s website at equalityhousing.org and review the impressive 76-page “Know Your Rights as a Renter in Pennsylvania” handbook.

It could save your life. Literally.

 

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.