By Madison J. Gray
Ricci (pronounced “Ricky”) Rawls — a single mother of five and member of the Philadelphia Tenants Union (PTU) — was evicted from her North Philadelphia home the week of Thanksgiving. Rawls’s requests for assistance were ignored by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, and homeless shelters claimed to not have space for a family their size. Rawls and her five children were forced to sleep on the streets. She feared her children would be taken away and put in foster care.
For over a year, since an eviction resulting from domestic violence in 2017, Rawls told her story to anyone who would listen, hoping it would move people to help her and her young kids. Few listened, but the PTU did. David Thompson, a PTU delegate-at-large, was one of the organizers involved in her fight. He recalls: “Ricci turned her shame and fear into righteous anger. She was motivated by fighting for more than just herself. In my experience as an organizer, it’s the people who connect what they’re going through to systematic injustice — and come to believe they can do something about it — who have the courage to win.”
Together, Rawls and the PTU shared Rawls’s story through social media campaigns, attention-grabbing press releases, and rallies in front of government buildings. This all culminated with Rawls’s powerful testimony at City Council on December 6. “When I speak, I speak for thousands,” she said. “Y’all have 6,000 children in foster care a year and asking for 300 more families. But what about the 300 families those children belong to who probably was wrongfully evicted from their homes?” She added, “It costs a lot less money to help tenants stay in their homes than to place a child into foster care.”
“Ricci told her story in a way that put the do-nothing politicians in the hot seat,” Thompson says. “Curtis Jones, whose office we had reached out to but heard nothing back from, saw the political reality and did what smart politicians do — do powerful people a favor. Ricci had become not just a person who needed help, but someone with the power of an organization behind her, someone who had the power to move and convince people at the right moment — when journalists and elements of the activist scene were there to witness.”
City Council member Curtis Jones connected Rawls with a rental assistance program that enabled her to afford rent for a new home. It appeared that Rawls had secured a happy ending for her story of housing insecurity. But she and her five young children had only progressed to the next chapter of her story.
Since Jones secured a rental assistance spot for Rawls in late November, she has been on the search for a landlord that will accept her voucher. Due to her record of eviction, her pool of eligible landlords is extremely limited. Since eviction court records are public, potential landlords can easily see the eviction court history of a potential tenant. In Rawls’s case, her former landlord has admitted that the eviction was not merited and parts of the record are inaccurate. To a prospective landlord, however, the only relevant details of her story are the previous evictions and the damages to the apartment alleged by her previous landlord.
Because of her eviction history, the only landlords that are willing to rent to her are slumlords renting uninhabitable apartments. Rawls says that she has gotten her hopes up several times about a new home, only to discover that it is far too small or that it has several outstanding Licenses and Inspections violations. None of the homes she has toured so far would be safe to raise young children in, she says.
Rawls is not alone in the obstacles she faces due to public access to eviction records. George Donnelly, an attorney at Public Interest Law Center, says, “Eviction records are keeping families out of homes that they can afford, because landlords often refuse to rent to anyone with an eviction case filed against them. I’ve had several clients who stayed in shelters for long periods of time because they kept getting denied in their housing applications, even though they had the income to pay the rent.”
Thompson connects landlords’ use of eviction records to the segregation and rapid gentrification of the city. “Once you have a record, you’re stuck renting from slumlords for good,” he says. “It’s an extremely efficient displacement mechanism, making it so only people with spotless credit ratings or co-signers for their leases — and this demographic is disproportionately young white people with college educations — can hope to rent in whole swaths of the city.”
California seals eviction court records to prevent evicted people from suffering from chronic housing insecurity, and a few other states and cities will seal a record under certain conditions. Donnelly has drafted eviction-record-sealing legislation that he hopes will be introduced in the Pennsylvania state legislature soon.
“This is a racial justice issue, because the vast majority of people with eviction records are people of color,” Donnelly says. “So the folks being denied housing because of past eviction cases are Black and Brown Philadelphians. The families most likely to be denied housing based on eviction records are women with children.”
Editor’s note: At press time, Ricci Rawls has at last found a house to rent and has moved in with her children. To help Ricci set up her family’s new home with beds, pillows and blankets, you can donate to her GoFundMe campaign.
Image caption: Ricci Rawls holding her new house keys in January 2019. Photo courtesy of Ricci Rawls.