City Ordinances Place Additional Burdens On Phila. Landlords
Written by: Alan Nochumson
Since I have been practicing law, landlords doing business in Philadelphia have been required to obtain what is called a housing inspection license for their residential dwelling units on an annual basis.
Chapter 102.6 of the Philadelphia Property Maintenance Code provides that “no person shall collect rent with respect to any property that is required to be licensed … unless a valid license has been issued for said property.”
For years, the Philadelphia Municipal Court, which maintains concurrent jurisdiction on landlord-tenant disputes with the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, has refused to allow a landlord to even file a complaint seeking to obtain a judgment for money or possession if the landlord did not have a valid Housing Inspection License at the time of filing.
In response, landlords who did not possess a valid Housing Inspection License during a portion of the lease tenancy would merely obtain one prior to the filing of the complaint in the Philadelphia Municipal Court.
Until recently, if the tenant was not present at the hearing in the Philadelphia Municipal Court, a default judgment would be entered by the commissioner of the Philadelphia Municipal Court and the issue of the lack of a valid Housing Inspection License during a portion of the lease tenancy would not affect the relief sought by the landlord in the complaint.
Last week, however, for the first time, a commissioner of the Philadelphia Municipal Court, during one of my cases, refused to issue a default judgment for rent allegedly due during the lease tenancy without proof that the landlord had a valid Housing Inspection License for all time periods in which the landlord was seeking to collect rent by way of the complaint. In that case, the landlord purchased the property from a bank which had foreclosed upon the property and was seeking the collection of rent, among other things, from the tenant pre- and post-property ownership. While the landlord had obtained the Housing Inspection License at the time of the property acquisition, the landlord lacked proof that the bank, the previous property owner, had a valid housing inspection license during the time period in which it owned the property. While the commissioner did agree to grant a default judgment for the rent allegedly owed by the tenant during the time period the landlord possessed a valid Housing Inspection License, the commissioner refused to include as part of the judgment any rent allegedly owed by the tenant for the time period in which a valid Housing Inspection License could not be established. The commissioner did give the landlord the opportunity to present the issue of the additional rent allegedly owed under the lease agreement to the judge, but the landlord declined to do so because the landlord believed the judgment for money was uncollectible anyway and the landlord was satisfied with obtaining possession of the property.
In late April, the city of Philadelphia added an additional burden on landlords in Philadelphia by enacting an ordinance amending Chapter 9-800 of the Philadelphia Code, titled “Landlord and Tenant–Rent Control,” which requires landlords owning multifamily buildings within the city limits to provide tenants with a written disclosure of the building’s policy on smoking in the residential dwelling units.
According to the newly enacted city ordinance, “the disclosure must be made part of the lease and shall state whether smoking is prohibited in all dwelling units, permitted in all dwelling units or permitted in some dwelling units … [and,] if smoking is permitted in some dwelling units, the lease shall identify the units where smoking is permitted.”
This city ordinance requires such a disclosure when a landlord enters into or renews a lease or tenancy for a residential dwelling unit.
If the landlord fails to comply with this ordinance, the tenant “shall be limited to the remedies available by law for breach of the lease contract agreement.” In other words, the landlord could be deemed in breach of the terms and conditions of the lease by failing to make such a disclosure about the building’s smoking policy.
This ordinance is set to become effective the last week of June.
If a landlord does not comply with this ordinance, a tenant could then argue that the landlord is in breach of the lease agreement. The question remains as to whether judges in Philadelphia will deem such a breach of the lease agreement as a technical or a material one. If such a breach is declared a material one that could affect the landlord’s ability to collect rent or obtain possession of the leased premises.
This is not the first time that the city of Philadelphia has recently provided more rights to tenants occupying residential dwellings within the city limits.
For several years, Philadelphia has required landlords to provide tenants with what is called a Certificate of Rental Suitability.
Under Chapter 22.214.171.124 of the Philadelphia Maintenance Code, the city of Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections is empowered to issue Certificate of Rental Suitability only upon a determination that: the owner of the property has obtained all required licenses with respect to the property, including a housing inspection license; there are no outstanding violation notices with respect to the property; and the owner of the property has attested that all fire protection and smoke detection equipment for the property is present and in proper operating order, the operating systems and the property are free from defects which affect the health and safety of the occupants or the habitability of the property, and the owner will continue to maintain the operating systems and the property free from defects that affect the health and safety of the occupants and the habitability of the property through the tenancy.
Landlords in Philadelphia can apply for and obtain the certificate of rental suitability online at www.phila.gov. After obtaining one, the landlord must print out the Certificate of Rental Suitability and then sign, date, and provide it to the tenant along with a copy of what is called the “City of Philadelphia Partners for Good Housing Handbook” which sets forth the rights of tenants and the responsibilities of landlords generally and according to the law.
Under the law, the Certificate of Rental Suitability and the associated handbook must be issued by the landlord to the tenant no more than 60 days prior to the inception of the lease tenancy.
Similar to the Housing Inspection License, a landlord cannot technically collect rent or obtain possession of residential dwelling units until that happens.
Unlike the Housing Inspection License, a landlord in Philadelphia can file a complaint in the Philadelphia Municipal Court seeking a judgment for money, possession, or both against an alleged defaulting tenant even if the landlord does not possess such a certificate at the time of filing.
However, the tenant can assert that the tenant never received the Certificate of Rental Suitability and the associated handbook from the landlord as an affirmative defense.
If the tenant asserts such an affirmative defense, the judgment for money, possession, or both cannot be based upon the time period in which such a certificate and associated handbook were lacking. In other words, even if the landlord can file the complaint, the landlord must ensure that the tenant receives the certificate and the associated handbook prior to the hearing or the landlord risks a judgment in favor of the tenant as a matter of law.
The ordinance recently passed by the city of Philadelphia regarding a building’s smoking policy, while technically protecting tenants from the “bad” landlords, has made it even more difficult for the “good” ones to do business within the city limits.
Reprinted with permission from the June 14, 2016 edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2016 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.almreprints.com.