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August 03, 2023

Philly’s landlord-tenant officer expected to resume evictions, despite shootings and a lawsuit

The controversial office will reportedly use suburban constables to enforce evictions, a practice abolished by the city decades ago

Housing Courts
eviction-notice-apartment.jpg Diannie Chavez/USA TODAY NETWORK

Eviction lockouts conducted by the Philadelphia Landlord-Tenant Office will reportedly resume "within weeks" after a series of violent incidents that forced the office to pause evictions. Above is a file photo of an eviction notice in Glendale, Arizona.

Philadelphia’s landlord-tenant officer may soon be back in business after putting a brief moratorium on evictions.

Marisa Shuter, the court-appointed attorney who oversees the city’s unusual and controversial system of using private security contractors to perform eviction lockouts, recently agreed to stop conducting them following a series of shootings that occurred between her deputies and tenants facing eviction.

The controversial practice could resume “within weeks,” according to a WHYY report citing unnamed sources. The office will reportedly employ suburban constables — elected officials whose only official duty is to protect polling places during elections, though they are often hired to serve warrants or for private security — with eviction lockout experience in the hopes of avoiding a backlog of unsettled eviction cases.

If true, Shuter's plans to hire constables from the suburbs to enforce evictions in the city has some irony to it. The reason Philadelphia does not have its own constables is because the city abolished them in 1970 due to their widespread use of aggressive tactics, bribery and "engaging in practices designed to terrify the average citizen." To replace them, the city created the very Landlord-Tenant Office that Shuter now occupies.

Between March and July, there were three separate incidents in which tenants were shot by one of Shuter’s armed security contractors during an attempted lockout. Last month, one of the victims filed a lawsuit against Shuter, the property’s owner and the deputy who shot her in the head while attempting to evict her from her apartment on March 29.

The series of violent incidents has sparked outcries from community advocates and public officials alike. In March, Pennsylvania State Senators Nikil Saval and Sharif Street introduced legislation that would abolish the use of private contractors in performing eviction lockouts. That bill has been sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Philadelphia City Councilmembers Kendra Brooks and Jamie Gauthier have called for reforms to the system, including the adoption of formal procedural guidelines for carrying out evictions and de-escalation violence, as well as an official policy for properly notifying tenants of an impending lockout. Both councilmembers applauded the recent moratorium on evictions carried out by the landlord-tenant officer. Neither immediately responded to requests for comment from PhillyVoice.

Typically, eviction lockouts are executed by a sheriff on behalf of the courts. In Philadelphia, while the Sheriff's Office does sometimes handle evictions, most of them go through the court-appointed landlord-tenant officer, which is a less costly option than relying on sheriffs. When a case is ruled in favor of a landlord and results in a tenant being evicted, the landlord-tenant officer is paid a fee by the landlord to carry out the eviction.

In addition to coming under fire for lockout shootings, the system has also raised eyebrows for potential ethical violations. Shuter, a private attorney appointed by Philadelphia Municipal Court to handle evictions, is currently married to Municipal Court Judge David C. Shuter, who often presides over eviction cases and frequently rules in favor of landlords. The arrangement has been criticized as nepotism and a serious conflict of interest by legal observers.

Shuter's family entanglements with the eviction court system go back decades. Her own father, Judge Alan Silberstein, served as the President Judge of Philadelphia Municipal Court from 1986 to 1999, during which he appointed an attorney named Robert H. Messerman to the role of landlord-tenant officer. Messerman held that position for almost 30 years before being succeeded by Shuter in 2017, according to reporting from WHYY.

Shuter’s office agreed to pause eviction lockouts in late July after one of her deputies shot a tenant in Kensington, the third such incident this year. The eviction moratorium was put in place so that deputies hired by Shuter could be properly trained in how to conduct evictions safely and de-escalate conflicts if needed. To date, her office has not made any announcements regarding updates to policy or deputy training practices.

A spokesperson for the Landlord-Tenant Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from PhillyVoice.