After hearing what Brenda Harrison's landlord has put her through, I came across this quote from Irish satirist Jonathan Swift:

"I never wonder to see men wicked," he wrote, "but I often wonder to see them not ashamed."

Harrison's landlord, Pelham Court LP, has acted shamelessly. And if a shrewd tenant like Harrison can be treated this badly, God only knows how less-savvy tenants fare with equally callous landlords.

For 14 years, Harrison, 62, has lived in a fourth-floor apartment in Pelham Court, a stately, 92-unit residence in Mt. Airy. Each of its three sections has an elevator, which Harrison relies upon because she's severely disabled by fibromyalgia, vascular disease, and arthritis.

The staircase outside Brenda Harrison’s apartment.
PILC
The staircase outside Brenda Harrison’s apartment.

She's unable to climb stairs, uses canes to get around, and depends on home-health aides to deliver her groceries, get her to appointments, and help with chores.

For all her infirmities, Harrison – a tall, dignified woman with a radiant smile – carries herself with a grace that few could muster in similar straits.

During her tenure at Pelham Court, her wing's elevator has frequently broken down. For a while, with help, she was able to climb over the three-foot-high partition between her balcony and her neighbor's balcony in order to use the elevator in a different wing.

But as her health has worsened, that humiliating feat has become impossible, leaving Harrison stranded in her apartment for days at a time, she says.

She has missed medical appointments, worship services, and landmark events – like a dear friend's 50th wedding anniversary celebration. The busted elevator even kept her from saying goodbye to her father in hospice before he died.

Harrison used to climb over the wall between apartment balconies to get to a working elevator.
Ronnie Polaneczky
Harrison used to climb over the wall between apartment balconies to get to a working elevator.

In March, June, and July of 2017, when the elevator again marooned her, Harrison decided to deduct portions of her monthly rent to reflect the shutdown. This is a legal practice, by the way, ensured by state laws. But Pelham responded by threatening her with eviction for nonpayment of rent.

In response, Harrison filed a complaint with the Philadelphia Fair Housing Commission, which found that Pelham's threat violated the law. Harrison got to keep the money she withheld.

In November of last year, Harrison's lease came up for renewal – but with a few new conditions, including this one: that she would never again deduct rent if the elevator was out of service. When she wouldn't agree to the stipulation, Pelham refused to renew her lease. They gave her until the end of 2017 to vacate the apartment.

Once again, she filed a complaint with the Fair Housing Commission, which stalled the imposed move. During the five months it took for the commission to rule that Pelham's demand of Harrison was illegal, the elevator in Harrison's wing was out of order for 65 days.

Read that number again, and imagine being unable to leave your home for nine weeks and two days.

"I was just ­stuck," says Harrison. "I couldn't even get downstairs to pick up my mail."

Following the commission's ruling, Harrison was allowed to stay in her apartment. Her lease expires Dec. 31. She's looking for a new place to live, because she's done with being treated so badly.

But she's not done with Pelham, or its property management company, Rushmore Management. She is suing both in federal court under the Fair Housing Act, alleging discrimination based on her disability, failure to reasonably accommodate her disability, and retaliation for exercising her rights.

The defendants declined to comment for this column.  But I hope this thing goes to trial, and I hope Harrison gets justice.

"I can't tell you how many of these kind of cases cases we deal with," says George Donnelly of the Public Interest Law Center, which is representing Harrison.

George Donnelly
PUBLIC INTEREST LAW CENTER
George Donnelly

"Landlords know they have this huge power advantage over tenants. They hold the ultimate hammer of denying or taking away someone's access to housing. Unless they're incentivized, either through policy or litigation, to adhere to federal, state, and local laws, they won't do it."

That power imbalance is the incentive behind the "just cause" bill currently working its way through City Council, which would prevent landlords from eviction or non-renewal of leases without a justifiable reason (such as non-payment of rent, or destruction of property).

Introduced by Councilman Curtis Jones, the bill would help protect tenants from being booted from their homes after requesting repairs or complaining to the city about living conditions.

The bill's not perfect. The 2,500-member Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors says it infringes on the rights of landlords to protect their property. And Councilman David Oh thinks it could have a "chilling effect" on those who rent to people in poor communities.

So work out the bugs already. Because the status quo for renters in this city has got to change. Just ask Brenda Harrison.