Hiding in Housing

by Noah Cote.
Featured image by Roberto Catarinicchia on Unsplash.

Across the country, many tenants are facing a crisis. Since before I was even born in the late ’90s, housing has been in crisis while coinciding with falling wages and rising rental costs. This crisis isn’t due to a lack of housing; it’s due to a lack of affordable housing. There is plenty of housing to go around. Sure a percentage is in disrepair, but most homes are in a habitable state. It’s easy to frame housing in the market-economics sense of commodity, yet this is far from the truth. Houses are not merely investments; they are homes, even to those renting.

With the COVID-19 crisis, we are spending more time than ever in our homes, while simultaneously facing an unprecedented struggle to stay in them. 40% of tenants in Pennsylvania are at risk of eviction in the midst of compounding crises. Though government has attempted to mitigate evictions through unemployment aid and eviction moratoriums earlier in the pandemic, these have since run out or expired. Furthermore, politicians across the country have taken too long to provide additional relief. 

Tenants Unions and organizers have begun to step up to disrupt the eviction pipeline. Tenants Unions help struggling renters across the country to handle illegal evictions and the burgeoning legal eviction crisis. To do so, tenant organizers need to understand the landowner seeking removal; most of the background information required is relatively simple: name, mailing address, and other contact information. Unfortunately, even this basic information can be difficult to find.

The first place to look for landowner information is public records. Most cities have publically available data on different land parcels and houses. In Philadelphia, the city provides us with both online property assessment data and a tool that presents it, Atlas. Atlas provides users with the ability to find information on any given property within city limits. Still, it is of limited use when trying to see a property in a city-wide scope. To provide tenant organizers in Philadelphia with a broader housing context, I created philly-landlord-spotter,  a tool that attempts to create a more networked view of property assessment data. A networked view allows for houses to be viewed through clusters of landowners using the city’s property assessment data. By merely zooming out, tenant organizers gain a broader context than the simple view provided by Atlas.

Information Camouflage

Even with a diverse toolbox, tenants and tenant organizers can lack critical property information. Philadelphia’s property assessment data shows that this shortage of information is not accidental. The dataset consists of 429,983 property owners, 98% of which own only one property. Additionally, there can be a second owner. Of the total properties in the dataset, there are 376,528 properties with an owner_2 listed. Though there is a field that is supposed to contain the owner’s mailing address, only 38% of all properties have one listed.

Currently, all of the properties have a non-blank owner_1 field, although its significance can be negligible. In most cases, the properties owned by businesses yield the least amount of usable information. In total, 3.4% of properties in Philadelphia are owned by LLCs, an indicator that many tenants in the city probably don’t know who owns or is responsible for a property. In addition to hard-to-identify LLCs, 62% don’t have a mailing address listed, making whatever landlord-tenant communication channels that exist the only way to resolve conflict. 

Some of these LLCs are titled with the address of the property, followed by LLC (e.g. 4837 Baltimore Avenue LLC). There are a total of 3,201 properties that are owned by the roughly 2,500 LLCs of this type. Some of these companies list their mailing address to this as well, 134 to be exact. While this mailing address may be accurate for the business title, there is rarely an office or someone to contact. When researching these LLCs, it mostly leads to dead ends. Unless the building belongs to a property management group, using addresses as an ownership signifier creates some of the least useful entries in the property assessment data. However, there are some ways around it, such as knowledge of a property management group if the building belongs to one.

There are also rather strange entries in the property assessment data that deserve to be mentioned. Firstly, there is a non-trivial amount of owners who have single-character identifiers. To be more specific, there are four letters of the alphabet that own property: S, M, C, and J. Similarly, there are four more owners that have two letters in their name: BE, NE, ON, and EI.

Hiding Land Owners

With nearly 430,000 owners in Philadelphia’s property assessment data, one may ask why LLCs are in the spotlight even though they make up only four percent of owners. LLCs deserve special attention because of how effectively they can hide from tenants and the greater public. In my experience, finding information about the LLC that owned my house led me to see that the LLC was owned by another LLC, which also had no significant identifying information. Given the nature of private companies in the U.S., it’s not a surprise that identifying information is hidden. It would make tenant organizing too easy. Tenant organizers find themselves stuck when identifying the owner or other tenants is impossible. 

To make matters worse, the names of LLCs are sometimes rather vague. Unlike other companies, they do not want to have their name out there in any useful sense. My research into the city’s property owners yielded around 2,500 LLCs named after the property’s address. As a tenant organizer, asking about the tenant’s landlord is the first course of action. When I look into the property and ask if the owner has an office in one of these properties, the answer is almost always “No.”

After receiving the pro-forma answer about where the property owner is contactable, tenants are left with a phone number or email address that is likely ignored. Property owners can enter mailing addresses when filing assessments or business licenses. Still, as we saw earlier, many do not have any useful information in those fields. Over a hundred properties are owned by LLCs named after the property address and have mailing addresses to places tenants are sure they’re not. 

Photo by Jose Fontano on Unsplash

Trouble for Tenants and Tenant Organizers

The difficulty of finding information on property owners in public information is unlikely to be fixed any time soon. Being able to quickly search well-maintained and populated public property data would lead to privacy concerns, exemplified by Philadelphia’s removal of search by owner in this public data set. We know this isn’t the actual case. Giving tenants the information accessibility they deserve would be a nightmare for landlords. Having truly accessible public data would allow for more direct landlord or property group organizing, a much larger scale that has only been seen recently during the pandemic with groups like the New Age Tenants Council

Tenant advocacy groups are, without a doubt keeping a log of property owners they come in conflict with. However, with public data being unreliable, there is a very unethical power dynamic between the information a tenant gives to their landlord and the information a landlord gives to a tenant. I would never find an apartment if I was only applying with the letter N, so why does the city find this level of detail acceptable in their records?

During the current eviction crisis, at least 40% of renters in Pennsylvania may need to attend landlord-tenant court to avoid eviction. Some of the tenants there may never face the person that they pay their rent to every month. The process and information schema that the city and landlords put forth creates two radically different housing views. Their property is a profit machine to the landlord, while it is home to a tenant. These two views are at odds and cannot coexist, even more so during a pandemic. To bring the balance of power back to the people, Philadelphia and other major cities need to make haste in creating truly accessible and reliable datasets usable by even the least computer-literate person. 

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