by Jay Fullenwider
Featured image by Cupcake Media on Unsplash
Kate McKeon was devastated to learn over Memorial Day weekend last year that she would need to vacate her apartment within three months. Despite that shock, she began to organize and fight back against what she considers a retaliatory eviction. Over her nearly year long ordeal, Kate maintained her composure as she tried to keep her home during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I would not wish what me and my son went through for months on end to anybody. It was mentally, emotionally, and physically draining,” Kate said, as she recounted her victory over her landlord, and how the Philadelphia Tenants’ Union helped her achieve that win.
Kate lived in her apartment with her adult son, Kyle, for eight years prior to the Memorial Day weekend letter from her property manager, Ed Rueter. On a month-to-month lease, she recently had a dispute regarding noise with her upstairs neighbor. After trying and failing to get the landlord to address her concerns, Kate reached out to the Eighth District police station, where an officer referred her to a neighbor dispute division in the Philadelphia Fair Housing Commission.
Not long after trying to remedy the noise complaint, Kate received a letter stating that her food storage in the laundry room was a fire hazard, and that her month to month lease had been terminated. At the time of the lease termination, the United States had just surpassed 100,000 deaths from COVID-19, and Kate’s son has diabetes, a risk factor for complications from COVID-19. Kate felt that she clearly needed to fight this.
Kate removed the food bins from the laundry room within two days, and brought pictures as evidence to the landlord. Rueter then explained to her that Kate and Kyle would need to move because the landlord’s son needed a place to stay due to pandemic-related unemployment. Kate reports that throughout the seven-month long battle with her management company, Rueter would on occasion change the story to say that it was the landlord’s grandson who suddenly needed to take her home of eight years.
Kate insists that the lease termination was a retaliatory eviction. Her persistence in addressing the noise complaint may have been the inciting factor, as Rueter appeared to be a “pretty hands-off landlord,” according to Christina Gesauldi, a PTU organizer who worked closely with Kate. Additionally, as part of the City’s Emergency Housing Protection Act, Kate should not have had to worry about moving; these bills were aimed at minimizing the impact of the coronavirus on tenants, including an eviction moratorium.
At the core of Kate’s misery were loopholes in the City’s Good cause legislation, which as the name implies, requires landlords to have a “good cause” for eviction—non-payment of rent, lease violation, and familial needs, for example. Good Cause does not specify if tenants have opportunity, or a time frame, to remedy lease violations, although the law does require 30 day notice to tenants. The only other time frame specified in the legislation is a 15-day period for tenants to appeal terminations to the fair housing commission.
Despite these weaknesses, the PTU fought for the legislation because it protects the most vulnerable tenants—the lowest incomes in the rental market are more likely to have month-to-month leases. Organizing efforts were innovative, including grassroots lobbying which brought over 15 members to meetings with City Council Members. PTU believes that Good Cause provides a legal stepping stone for Rent Control, as it would prevent landlords from evicting tenants to restore units to market rate. The existing legislation does not cover rent increases, nor renovations, which were the underlying cause of the Penn Wynne fight that pushed Good Cause into the political discussion in Philadelphia.
Kate called every housing organization she could identify and referred to the pamphlets she received from the police. Housing organizations in Philadelphia have been overwhelmed by the pandemic, and none had the capacity to help her. Kate filed an appeal with the Fair Housing Commission, then called the PTU’s hotline.
The PTU hotline serves as an intake for the organization; allowing members to respond back to tenants who call for information or assistance. Christina Gesualdi, an organizer with the PTU since 2016, decided to return Kate’s call. Kate says that she was impressed by the warmth and kindness that Christina displayed. Christina notes that the charges were “completely ridiculous.” Christina believes Kate’s claim of a retaliatory eviction, noting that the property manager did not give adequate time to remedy the food storage issue, nor address the neighbor’s noise violations.
Alerts soon pinged PTU members’ phones — they received messages Christina had sent through the Union’s Facebook page and listserv, requesting support for Kate. The first step Christina took to assist Kate was research the property manager and landlord, Ed Rueter and John White. According to Christina, it is common for the landlord and the property manager (who carries out the legal responsibilities of property rental) to be different. While this can cause quite a bit of confusion in choosing who to target, for Kate’s case, it seemed natural to focus efforts on Ed Rueter, because Rueter was the “entity who hoped that [Kate] wouldn’t know her rights,” and the one they wanted to pressure to stop.
Kate reviewed her options, and decided that a march on Ed Rueter’s office with her list of demands would be most helpful. The PTU invited members to attend her action, in which a number joined Kate in visiting the management company’s office. Kate and Kyle’s demands included “honoring their right to remain in their home,” and refraining from evicting Kate and her son for at least the duration of the pandemic. They also requested action on the noise complaints that initiated her protest. Following the delivery of the demand letter, there was “complete radio silence from Rueter,” according to Christina. The property management company didn’t meet either demand.
Both Christina and Kate note a sense of uncertainty over November and December. While Kate was theoretically protected due to pandemic eviction moratoriums, it was not clear how long that shield would remain in place. Federal, state, and local governments all had overlapping tenant protection enhancements during the pandemic, but most emergency orders were typically renewed only a few days, if not the day of, expiration.
In fact, Philadelphia’s Emergency protection Housing Act was expected to expire the day of the demand delivery. This act, supported and advocated for by the PTU, LILAC, Rent Control Coalition, and other grassroot organizations in Philadelphia, banned evictions and required landlords to apply for rental assistance prior to filing for eviction.
On top of the brinkmanship behind extending tenant protections, Kate still did not have a hearing date for her Fair Housing Commission hearing. Due to the pandemic, the Fair Housing Commission moved the date of her hearing a few times, finally settling on January 19th. According to Christina, “Kate was pretty relieved, scared but relieved,” once the hearing was finally scheduled.
The uncertainty in November and December took a significant toll on Kate’s mental health—with difficulties sleeping: “I have not had a good night’s sleep in months. I would wake up in the middle of the night crying, asking why is this happening?” She had trouble celebrating Christmas, not finding much to celebrate that year. Maddie Rose and Christina provided emotional support during this period; Kate talked to them multiple times each week.
Eviction can be considered a traumatic event, and trauma responses may include guilt, shame, depression, and a diminished view of the world. Researchers at the University of Cleveland identified that eviction leads to poorer reported mental health outcomes. A series of studies have found that eviction can lead to depression, high blood pressure, and alcohol dependence.
The Philadelphia Tenants Union attempted to support Kate in additional outreach and research during this period. But Kate needed to focus on her job search so she could afford to move out, if necessary. It is not unheard of for tenants to need three months’ worth of rent to move into a unit, and in a city where the median rent was $1,042, that can be an insurmountable cost for most families. The familial exception for good cause can force a tenant to shell out thousands of dollars for a new apartment while the landlord is able to move in their son, or grandson.
Kate did support the movement as she could during December. The PTU connected Kate with Renters’ United, a housing organization associated with the Public Interest Law Center that also focuses on organizing tenants. Kate spoke virtually at their “No Home for the Holidays” action on December 19th, where tenants were protesting lease non-renewals and poor living conditions. Kate relayed to the tenants of MCM Management Solutions similarities between her and their stories.
Kate hired a lawyer early in her ordeal, before she had contacted the PTU. As the new year began, preparation with the lawyer was chaotic. Kate was incensed to find out two days before the January 19th hearing that her lawyer was lacking key information, especially since she had been careful to contact the firm two or three weeks prior to confirm. “All of the aggravation I’ve gone through since last February, and now people want to screw up on me—it’s not happening!” The documentation the lawyer lacked included the lease, the notice to quit and vacate, and rental receipts.
The PTU has a rich history of court support, where they attend hearings to give emotional support to tenants and guidance as necessary. Kate was no different—Maddie Rose shared some coaching in their notes for Kate, and Barry Thompson called her the night before the hearing to reassure and provide some pointers. Despite a virtual hearing, Kate wanted PTU there, and shared the link.
Unfortunately for Kate, her lawyer did not have the link, and arrived twenty minutes late to the hearing. During that time, Kate felt reassured with Barry, Maddie, and other PTU members in attendance, while she wore her membership shirt. The hearing officers confirmed that Kate was current on rent, and heard challenges from John White, the landlord, that he had good cause to terminate. Hearing officers ultimately decided to rule in Kate’s favor, due to the pandemic eviction protections, and the fact that the landlord did not mail notice, indicating that good cause was not fulfilled, as the law requires a 30 day notice.
Kate was overjoyed at the thought of being able to stay in her home, and still incredulous at the empathy of Christina, Barry, and Maddie. She said: “I never met the most caring, passionate people, who were the most perfect strangers, be so kind to me.” During the February monthly meeting, the general membership of the PTU voted to reimburse Kate $700 for her lawyer fees. “Kate’s planning on staying involved… she doesn’t want this to happen to other tenants.” For now, her primary focus is finishing her job search, so that she can be more involved with Philadelphia Tenants Union in the future.