Metropolis

Your Lease Is Bad Because Your Landlord Found It Online

A street of row houses in Philadelphia.
These houses’ owners are just Googling for leases. Getty Images Plus

Renting in Philadelphia worked out well for Benjamin Franklin: The city’s favorite son arrived in 1723 and promptly fell in love with his landlord’s daughter, whom he later married.

Rarely has it worked out so well since. Prior to the pandemic, landlords in the City of Brotherly Love filed between 1,500 and 2,000 evictions every month. But that number understates the number of renters forced from their homes; according to research from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, more than two in three forced moves nationally happen without a judge’s say-so. Landlords have other methods to make tenants go.

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Philly’s housing insecurity is both a function and a cause of the city’s distinction as the poorest big city in America. In a paper published last year, the professors David A. Hoffman and Anton Strezhnev illuminate the conflict between landlords and tenants by analyzing 171,306 leases from almost two decades of eviction filings in Philly.

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What they found: Most leases are not good for tenants, and they’re getting worse. Hoffman, who teaches contracts at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said Philadelphia’s bad leases are part of a larger trend. “All we do is talk about how contracts have been transformed by technology,” he told me. “More contracts, over more terms, in more fields. Go shopping, get in a cab, make a reservation at a restaurant, go to a hotel—there are contracts everywhere and they all contain worse terms for you than if you didn’t have a contract at all. The contracts we sign are just bonkers.”

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In the case of the Philadelphia lease, Hoffman and Strezhnev found that what they call “unenforceable and oppressive terms” are very, very common. Those include sections that let the landlord off the hook for negligence, that waive existing rules about housing conditions, or that allow evictions to begin faster than state law dictates.

Those terms might not hold up in court, but again, most people get evicted out of court. And tenants don’t know that their lease might not withstand legal scrutiny.

Worse yet, those terms are becoming more and more common. A plurality of the leases that Hoffman and Strezhnev surveyed are so-called shared leases, cookie-cutter forms that are spreading as landlords increasingly use free PDFs they find online. That may explain one of the curious trends in the data, which is that anti-tenant terms are more common in Philadelphia’s wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. Meanwhile, landlords in Philly’s poorer, Blacker neighborhoods are apparently more likely to stick with the leases they’ve got.

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But that’s not to say there’s no racial bias in the terms. Provisions that threaten eviction for drug use or criminality are much more likely to show up in Black tenants’ leases even within a single neighborhood, despite the fact that almost all landlords give the same leases to all their tenants. This might reflect a different kind of racial sorting: Black renters in Philly may end up in apartment buildings with professional landlords, while white renters let second units from row house owners.

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One conclusion of the study is that housing advocates shouldn’t count on the courts to stop landlords from writing shady lease terms. These leases ended up in court, but most do not. Another is to put pressure on the organizations, such as the Philadelphia Association of Realtors, that publish local lease PDFs for public use.

Hoffman, for his part, is drafting what he says is a “model lease” he’d like tenant organizations to approve and the city of Philadelphia to adopt. What’s the incentive for landlords? He’s still working on that, but he thinks maybe just getting the city stamp of approval would be enough to make a difference. Landlords may not be thinking that hard about their leases. More likely they’ve just grabbed the first thing they saw online.

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