by Maddie Rose.
All photos by the author.
Hundreds of people marched on September 3rd to block the reopening of Philly’s Landlord-Tenant Court, successfully halting all morning eviction court hearings and prompting the court to issue an emergency lockout moratorium. Lockouts, the last step in a legal eviction in which tenants are locked out of their homes, were halted for two weeks for all residential tenants.
A series of court closures and eviction moratoriums had stretched out over the course of the Coronavirus, but inaction on the part of both the state and city legislature let these protections lapse on August 31st, with courts set to open September 3rd. A CDC partial eviction moratorium on rent-related evictions was set to take effect, but not until September 4th. What of the tenants in court just one day earlier?
Tenants with the Philadelphia Tenants Union (PTU) set out to keep people housed through the only solution they had left: blockading the gates to keep the landlords and lawyers out.
Living in Fear of Landlord-Tenant Court
Unemployed tenants across the city have been living in fear of Landlord-Tenant Court reopening, when landlords could forcefully remove them from their housing. Amidst a global pandemic, housing serves as a place of sanctuary from the health risks of the outside world.
Meanwhile landlords have been gleefully trying to remove cash-strapped tenants: performing illegal lockouts and utilities shut-offs to try to force tenants out of their homes. Community Legal Services reported they usually saw a handful of illegal lockouts each month, which has become 20 a month under the pandemic.
City Council passed a series of bills that served eviction court more than it did tenants, offering tenant-landlord mediation and payment plans that simply drew out the timeline of eviction rather than avoid it. This kept the courts from being swamped, but only bought tenants more time. A rental assistance program earlier in the summer saw 13,000 residents apply for rental help—only 4,000 received it. PTU and tenants all across the city demanded rent cancellation, extended moratoriums, and rent stabilization—demands which were ignored by state and city officials.
Tenants watched as city officials spoke out in support of Black Lives Matter, while failing to block an eviction wave that would displace primarily Black women and children. As Philly residents confronted the reopening of the court, some tenants took matters into their own hands.
Eviction Defenders Take Action
On September 3rd protesters arrived at the courthouse with banners and signs insisting—NO EVICTIONS, NOW OR EVER. They blocked the front gate to the courts, and shortly after two other side entrances were covered, leaving the Landlord-Tenant court fully surrounded on all sides.
Outside the building where evictions are churned out daily by the dozens, tenants spoke on the injustice of eviction at a time when many could not afford rent. Landlord-Tenant court does not aim to offer tenant protection: under the current presiding Judge Moss, tenants are ruled against 78% of the time.
Morgin Goldberg, an organizer with the PTU, said she felt compelled to take action when the city failed to address the root cause of the eviction problem: people simply couldn’t pay rent.
Goldberg described the morning as “solid and powerful—we had people speaking about evictions, connecting it to the encampment, songs and chants.” And, crucially — “people who were willing to take the risk of putting their bodies on the line to get in the way of the eviction machine.”
Frustrated lawyers and landlords stormed back and forth between the entrances trying to find a route in. Some tried to forcibly shove their way through blockade lines, with protestors yelling back “sorry, court is closed today!”
For protestors, this moment was crucial—confronting people with the role they play in the larger eviction machine. “It’s not about whose hands are tied where, who has to go to work, or anything else,” Goldberg explains. “The courts cannot be open, full stop.”
No Business As Usual
Eviction court churned to a halt. Initial concern that tenants would have default judgements against them for not appearing in court prompted some defenders to allow tenants in on a case-by-case basis. Print-out sheets starring the faces of notorious landlord lawyers allowed the people who needed to stay out to be kept out—like Judge Bradley Moss, and Kenneth Baritz, who has defended landlords in Philadelphia for decades.
Puppetry by local artists, breakfast and coffee from Food Not Bombs, and “Cancel Rent” street art turned the site from a site of terror to a site of celebration. Participants included many unhoused individuals and organizers from the JTD and Teddy encampments, who were simultaneously defending their own tent community from the police as well. For many tenants and unhoused protestors alike, the anti-eviction blockade was personal.
However, Goldberg explains, “the court officials really didn’t want us to block the afternoon session, because we had really successfully gotten in the way of the morning session.” By early afternoon the DA’s office started getting increasingly angry, as did municipal court, because the blockade was affecting every entrance and every affiliated office. Defenders knew what to expect: that the courts were perfectly willing to use the city’s police force to remove and arrest dozens of people to evict others from their homes.
Protesters were met with counter-terrorism squads—vans full of police in riot gear complete with shields. This is a common intimidation tactic that protesters face: the threat of brute force and the flashing of zip ties, batons and weaponry. Goldberg described this “stark contrast between people sitting or standing peacefully, linking arms, singing, chanting about housing being a human right, having courage—and the police moving in and arresting our disruptors who were so obviously in the right and taking the moral high ground.”
As the blockade locked arms with each other, cops removed and arrested a total of 17 people. The visual of using riot cops to allow for the violence of evictions was clear. Police were not present that day to defend people from harm—such as eviction during a pandemic. They were present to protect the private property of landlords, even if it took violent force against protestors to do so. “That dramatized the issue at hand,” says Goldberg, “and showed that the police, Landlord-Tenant court, and the city and landlords were all working hand in hand.”
A Tenant Victory—For Now
Only a few days later the city responded to the action with emergency protections to postpone the eviction wave. Philadelphia court officials announced they would not be enforcing lockouts for two additional weeks. For now, tenants are safe and protected from homelessness due to the work of eviction defenders forcing the court’s hand.
The tenants who had cases in court that day had their evictions rescheduled, and remain safely in their homes through their next court date. Though the courts were not held closed through the end of the day—the eviction machine was successfully disrupted, court officials intimidated, and the press covered the violence of the court’s reopening.
“This is one part of the broader fight,” says Goldberg. “It’s not sustainable to block the courts every day. We can block the courts, but we also need to be doing eviction defense at the point of eviction, and canvassing—building defensive and offensive approaches.”
Most importantly, this action sets a precedent for what is possible. Tenants are right to question the fairness of eviction, for any reason, and especially during a pandemic. The courts have been closed for six months—further action could ensure they are kept that way.
Maddie Rose is a freelance journalist and housing organizer. Their work has previously appeared in Teen Vogue and Shadowproof, as well as here in the Partisan. You can reach them at @uliveinasociety on Twitter.