One day after locked-out tenants were restored access to their apartments in Olde Kensington, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro and City Councilmember Helen Gym came to the neighborhood to celebrate and warn other unruly developers about mistreating tenants.
“We’ve had clear rulings on protections for tenants whether you are here at Moscow & Monica or whether you are [in] any part of the city of Philadelphia and beyond across the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” said Gym at the press event Thursday afternoon. “The reality is this: Illegal evictions are illegal. Period.”
The owner of Moscow & Monica apartments, located just outside of Fishtown at 1413 Germantown Ave., “made a series of callous decisions to illegally evict residents of this very building,” said Shapiro at the event.
The owner of Moscow & Monica is Gagandeep Lakhmna. Lakhmna is also an owner of Greenpointe Construction, which is the development company behind the “gargantuan” development at 2400 E. Huntingdon St. in Olde Richmond.
According to Shapiro, one of Lakhmna’s employees, Frank Sanders, the former property manager of this apartment complex, “made legal, verbal, legitimate leases” with about 20 renters who paid rent and security deposits to him before the building was finished construction.
“According to Mr. Lakhmna, this was done without his knowledge,” Shapiro said.
Shapiro told the press that Sanders subsequently “ran off” with that money.
“Instead of holding his employee, Sanders, accountable for his conduct and going through the proper legal process here in Philadelphia,” Shapiro said, “he decided to take matters into his own hands and target good, innocent, law-abiding citizens.”
According to Shapiro, Lakhmna shut off access to the buildings and to the tenants’ units, turned off water and electricity and told some tenants that in order to regain access they’d have to pay new security deposits.
With the help of Community Legal Services, the tenants went to court over the matter. On March 17, Judge Joshua Roberts ruled that tenants regain access to their apartments and scheduled another hearing for March 29. After that hearing, Lakhmna “shut off tenants’ access to the building” despite the fact that Roberts hadn’t revised his order that tenants have access. He was later found in contempt of court for disregarding his order.
“These Philadelphians who had paid for their apartments, they were left outside with nowhere to go and no way to get back in,” said Shapiro. “Some couldn’t even get access to their kids’ medications.”
Roberts also charged Lakhmna with a $22,500 fine, plus $1,000 “every single day that he continues his illegal predatory behavior,” said Shapiro, who also referred to Lakhmna as a “greedy landlord.”
“What happened yesterday was a victory for the tenants of Philadelphia and the tenants of Pennsylvania,” said George Donnelly, chief of staff for state Sen. Nikil Saval. “It’s made possible by General Shapiro and his team for what they did in the courtroom yesterday, by Vik Patel and the people at Community Legal Services for what they did in the court yesterday, but it’s also made possible by politicians and elected officials like Councilmember Gym, who has put tenants rights at the forefront of Philadelphia political discourse for the past five years.”
Saval couldn’t attend the event due to the impending birth of his second child.
“With the idea that housing is a human right,” Donnelly said, “we stand here today to say, ‘No, we will not allow illegal evictions to happen in Philadelphia or throughout the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
Community Legal Services staff attorney Vik Patel called the residents “strong” and “resilient.” “Yesterday they came together with one voice in court saying they demand to be heard,” said Patel. “No matter how rich you are, no matter how many properties you’ve built, you are not above the law.”
Gym touted the work the city of Philadelphia has done to protect renters during the pandemic.
“Yesterday, for example, the Municipal Court has ruled that not only is the eviction moratorium at the federal level going to remain in effect until June 30 of this year,” she said, “but, in fact, there will be no eviction filings accepted in Municipal Court until a landlord first and foremost files for rent assistance and goes through a mediation process with their tenants.”
According to Gym, there were 19,000 evictions through landlord tenant court in 2019. In 2020, that number dropped to under 5,000.
“This year we want to make a commitment that there should be no poverty-based evictions in the city of Philadelphia.” she said.