by Maddie Rose.
All photos by the author.
Tenants are evicted every day in Philadelphia, even during court closures. They are evicted not only through the court system, but also illegally and through lease non-renewal. This is a story of landlord retaliation and the people who slip through the gaps in Good Cause legislation.
“I’m tired of being stressed out, I’m tired of having sleepless nights, I’m tired of being mentally and physically drained. I’ve put up with this for so long, I’ve kept silent. Now somebody needs to hear.”
Kate McKeon stood outside her home of nine years in Greater Far Northeast Philly, surrounded by members of the Philadelphia Tenants Union (PTU). She prepared to confront her management company with a letter asking for the right to remain in her home after being slapped with a retaliatory eviction.
As union members gathered, PTU organizer Christina Gesualdi sang on the megaphone: a song demanding no retaliation, no intimidation, and no eviction. The song was built off of Kate’s life the last few months: threats, lawyers, and worries for her housing stability. Kate and the PTU members drove to the management office with banners, prepared for a confrontation.
There, Kate, her son Kyle, and the PTU presented a letter to Edward Rueter just before close. Rueter poked his head out anxiously through a glass door. Other staff hid out of view of the windows. When asked if he would vow not to evict Kate, Rueter gave half-answers: I don’t know anything about that. I’ll have to ask, I’ll have to see. PTU handed off the letter and left, telling Edward Rueter he and the Rueter business had one week to respond.
One Complaint Away From Eviction
How did a nine-year tenancy turn into combat? It started when Kate and her son Kyle — both working during the pandemic, cleaning homes and at the local ACME — were kept awake late every night by a noisy neighbor. After her repeated attempts to work out the issue with her neighbor failed, Kate went to her property manager to try to resolve it. The property manager did nothing. After several returns to the office, plus a call to the cops when the neighbor left an illegally parked car in the driveway, Kate found that management had labeled her a problem tenant.
Property manager Charles Rueter then began efforts to evict Kate and her son.
A surprise notice arrived, stating that the property was going to be inspected. Shortly afterward, Kate received three notices from the property manager: that her plastic totes of food in the laundry room were a fire hazard, that her month-to-month lease was not being renewed, and instructions for her imminent move-out.
“All I was doing was crying my eyes out,” Kate remembered. “But when I got the letters, I rectified the situation. I cleaned up the laundry room, I took pictures. Me and my friend went over to Rueter’s office and showed them the pictures that we rectified the situation, to see if the landlord would reconsider.” The landlord, John White, did not.
So she contacted the Fair Housing Commission and filed a Good Cause challenge.
When Landlords Game Good Cause Defenses
Good Cause eviction legislation, a bill won by the PTU, states that tenants on a month-to-month lease cannot be evicted without “Good Cause,” such as breaking a lease or nonpayment of rent.
According to the Good Cause bill, Kate should have been able to stay in her home. But in an incident that’s forming a pattern, upon learning that landlords cannot actually evict without cause, the property manager and landlord changed their story to one that is a legal exception under the bill: moving in a relative.
“Next, my attorney hears that the landlord’s son is moving into the apartment, into my property. Another week later, now it’s the grandson,” Kate explains. She isn’t buying it. But because of this exception — one of many loopholes added to the Good Cause bill by the landlord lobby HAPCO — any landlord can claim a relative is moving into the property as legal grounds to evict the current tenants.
PTU organizer Christina is concerned about the way landlords are using those exceptions: “A tenant complaint should not be cause for retaliatory notice to quit. Period. That is why the Good Cause bill exists; that is why PTU fought for it in the first place.”
Lease non-renewal as retaliation is common among landlords: Tenants who complain, ask for repairs, or take steps to enforce their rights can be removed and replaced with quieter tenants. Exceptions to the bill, such as for relative move-in, have left it vulnerable to landlord exploitation.
Kate is not alone in her struggle against retaliatory eviction. “Housing is so commodified, common practices of property management groups and landlords are so busted, so focused on profit, so undeniably predatory,” Christina explains. “Tenants’ rights to safe and healthy living conditions are even more destabilized during COVID-19 than usual.”
The Decision to Fight
Kate was able to arm herself in a way many tenants cannot: She lawyered up. It’s worth it, she says, because she cannot face the stress of leaving her home. In her current home of nine years, she and her son can both walk to work. Moving during a pandemic is also a risk: “My kid’s a diabetic, it’s bad enough he’s on the front line from work. I don’t need him getting sick.”
The decision to fight seemed the only option to Kate: “If somebody does not take a stand, it’s going to continue. Not just for me, one tenant that’s struggling and still paying their bills — and I know it’s a lot worse for other people. If somebody does not do what needs to be done, it’s never going to be rectified.”
Kate currently waits on a previously cancelled Fair Housing trial — also a lucky situation, as many people who don’t file first with Fair Housing end up first in landlord-tenant court, a courtroom that rules against tenants 78% of the time.
In the meantime, Kate has no interest in leaving, so she teamed up with the PTU, eager to pressure her property manager to allow her to stay.
“Everyone I dealt with has been nothing but caring, compassionate human beings,” she says. “At a time when you’re going through an issue like this, you don’t think there’s too many people on your side.”
After her confrontation with the property manager, neighbors gathered by Kate’s house, some of whom rented under Rueter, too. They were shocked to hear Kate was facing eviction; she had always been a quiet and respectful neighbor. The more support she heard, the more confidently she spoke.
“I’m not giving them what they want. I’m not moving out,” says Kate. “I want to be heard, not just for me but for everyone else out there who is dealing with what I am dealing with, or a hell of a lot worse.”
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.