“Philadelphia needs to treat its people who live here so much better. You know, I never liked speaking in front of people, but everything I’ve been through, living here for thirty years, I think it’s my right to speak for other families and other people who are going through what I’m going through. […] Y’all have six thousand children in foster care a year and asking for three hundred more families. But what about the three hundred families those children belong to who probably was wrongfully evicted from their homes? So I think y’all should think about that.” — Ricci Rawls
Last Thursday, the Tenants Union celebrated a tremendous victory for housing justice in Philadelphia when City Council unanimously voted to pass Good Cause Eviction Legislation. This amendment to the Unfair Rental Practices law will protect tens of thousands of renters on month-to-month leases from wrongful eviction and providing stability for some of the most vulnerable working-class families who call Philadelphia home.
Our campaign began over two years ago, shortly after the founding convention of the Tenants Union. As a young organization, we looked to other tenant unions around the country and to other more-established organizations in the city like Tenants Union Representative (TURN) to help us choose a particular campaign for housing reform. The one piece of legislation that was universally recommended was Just Cause Eviction.
Just Cause Eviction prevents displacement by giving good tenants a chance to renew at the end of their lease term unless the landlord has a “just cause” to evict them. In its most pure version, Just Cause would prevent slumlords, developers, and flippers from being able to wrongfully evict a tenant out of retaliation or to put profits over people.
Just Cause was a popular choice for many housing organizations. First, it had a proven track record: the rate of evictions in cities with Just Cause was 23 times lower than those without it. Second, Just Cause was a law that already existed in many metropolitan areas of the country, including Seattle, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. Finally, Just Cause provided the framework for later adoption of rent control by setting the precedent of housing as a human right.
Building a Grassroots Campaign
Like so many grassroots campaigns before us, we started out knocking on thousands of doors throughout Philadelphia communities and collecting petition signatures demanding City Council take action on “Just Cause”. From our start in the Fall of 2016 to the Spring of 2017, we collected over 1,000 petitions throughout the city. When City Council ignored our calls and meeting requests, we took power into our own hands and disrupted Council sessions to deliver our petitions and demand action.
In the meantime, we began individually targeting Helen Gym, widely regarded as the most progressive member of City Council. This included an aggressive effort to attend as many of the Councilwoman’s public events as possible and repeatedly asking her whether or not she would support Just Cause. By posing the same questions over and over and maintaining a visible presence with signs and banners at her events, we developed a focused message for our campaign and built awareness about our organization among elected officials.
Getting a Primary Sponsor
Despite our organizing efforts and an unsuccessful meeting with Helen Gym, it would take a tragedy to finally generate interest in Just Cause among City Council.
In the spring and summer of 2017, all of the tenants of Penn Wynn House, a 240-unit building in Overbrook, were mass-evicted after the property was purchased by Cross Properties earlier that year. Hundreds of tenants, including multi-generation families, veterans, teachers, and disabled persons, were being displaced to make way for a luxury renovation project that would be marketed to students at St. Joseph’s University. After receiving a tip from Rasheedah Phillips, Managing Attorney at Community Legal Services, we organized with the united tenants of Penn Wynn to win their demands of three months extension on their leases and security deposits to be delivered at moveout.
As part of our fight for Penn Wynn, we held a press conference. Among those present was Councilman Curtis Jones, who promised that he would help the Penn Wynn tenants get their demands and pass our Just Cause legislation. It would take five months of meetings with Jones and his staff to have the bill finally introduced in October of 2017, along with co-sponsors Cherelle Parker and Helen Gym. To separate our legislation from Just Cause laws passed in other cities, Jones put his unique stamp on the bill, renaming it “Good Cause.”
Learning How To Lobby
Despite having three sponsors for the bill, Good Cause legislation still remained widely unpopular among Council, who viewed it as controversial and anti-landlord. We created a unique committee for Good Cause within the PTU, to develop a strategy to build City Council support for our legislation. Listening to the advice of several community advocates from TURN, CLS, and other elders in Philadelphia, we began lobbying different City Council members to pledge their support for the bill. This required a shift for our organization. Up to that point, we had remained largely outside of systems of power within the city; for the first time, the PTU had to learn how to negotiate our personal politics with the needs of our campaign.
In order to choose which City Council members to meet with, our research team carried out an extensive power mapping to assess which members would be most responsive to our campaign. We then worked with legal partners and committee members to create a policy packet that could be used to brief Council Members and their staff. Finally, we recruited and trained members to attend lobbying meetings, with Barry Thompson and Karen Harvey leading the charge.
Typical lobbying meetings have a couple of paid advocates speak with a legislative director. We went for a more unconventional and grassroots approach. When staffers would ask us to bring three or four people, we brought fifteen tenants with us. Instead of relying on a single advocate to explain the bill, we combined facts and figures from policy experts with powerful personal stories from our members that illustrated the human impact of displacement and wrongful eviction. Finally, we always tried to get a meeting with the Councilperson first, not just their staff.
Building a Coalition
As we progressed through our early lobbying meetings, it became clear that we needed to establish a coalition with community partners who could help us to build a citywide movement in support of Good Cause.
At first, we relied on our members’ personal networks to generate endorsements for our bill. This helped us to build additional capacity for our campaign. Several months later, through the leadership of our Deputy Campaign Director Margaret Niersten, we solicited the endorsements of many affordable housing-aligned organizations throughout the city, resulting in a formal Good Cause Coalition. Our coalition gave additional credibility to our campaign,as well as valuable insight and hundreds of new supporters for Good Cause. As our movement expanded throughout the city, and we continued our targeted efforts in City Hall, Good Cause passed out of committee in February 2018.
Negotiations and Compromise
Unfortunately, our initial success of lobbying Council Members also drew the attention of the landlord lobby, led by the Homeowner’s Association of Philadelphia (HAPCO). The increasing potential of our bill’s passage urged HAPCO, along with several other organizations, to launch a fierce opposition campaign against Good Cause. Our progress slowed to a halt in the late spring of 2018, and was almost killed in early June. Despite our extensive organizing efforts, we were unable to push forward with the full bill. Our continued grassroots pressure, however, drove Councilman Jones to continue the fight.
Jones and his Legislative Director Samantha Williams organized three negotiations between our campaign and the landlord lobby. Despite attempts to stack the initial meeting, the format for the negotiations only allowed for three members from each side to advocate for their position. This required me, as the campaign director, to work with our Good Cause Committee to make decisions regarding possible compromise before each negotiation and then work with our partners Rasheedah Phillips at CLS and Phil Lord at TURN to lobby for those interests in the actual meetings.
In the spirit of compromise, we proposed an amendment to the bill that would limit Good Cause provisions to month-to-month leases. It was the opinion of policy experts in our coalition and the majority of our committee that this change would get a bill passed that still protected our city’s most vulnerable tenants. HAPCO dug their heels in and refused to accept any version of Good Cause. However, our good faith effort to find a working solution gave Councilman Jones the ammunition to build support for the bill among his peers.
Reaching the Finish Line
With the end of the council year approaching and momentum building, the campaign began a final escalation to get Good Cause passed. We sought to mobilize our entire base to put public pressure on undecided Council Members. This included City Council phonebanks, flyering, weekly meetings, lobbying, City Council testimony, and aggressive social media campaigning. The visibility of our efforts was able to rival the similarly progressive and controversial “fair work week” legislation that had the support of labor unions and large-scale non-profit organizing groups throughout the city. As a result of our pressure campaign, Jones and his staff were able to package these bills together, along with a $15/hr minimum wage legislation and Cherelle Parker’s amendments to the Squatters Bill, to be voted on the same day as a progressive slate of legislation..
On December 6th, in front of a packed City Council, PTU members and supporters offered over thirty minutes of personal testimony. Signs and chants filled the hall to amplify public support in the chambers. After almost five hours in session, Good Cause was passed unanimously by all seventeen members of City Council.
Looking Towards the Future
In the new year, the Tenants Union will welcome Karen Harvey as the new interim Campaign Director. In the immediate future, the PTU will continue to advocate for expansions to the Good Cause law. Although no formal decisions have been made regarding new legislative campaigns, the PTU is considering legislation for right-to-counsel, a law that would allocate three million dollars each year to guarantee legal representation for all renters in landlord-tenant court. As part of our long-term plan, we hope to build community support for rent control that will keep our communities affordable for years to come. In all of these efforts, our mission remains the same: winning safe and affordable housing for ALL of Philadelphia’s renters.
TO THE UNION!
Originally published in the Philadelphia Partisan.