On Nov. 6, a van pulled up outside Melissa Frost’s West Philadelphia home. The driver, a 56-year-old man named Jamison Bachman, explained that he was a Hurricane Sandy refugee from Rockaway Beach in New York, where electricity had been out for more than a week. He’d seen Frost’s ad for roommates on Craigslist; his dog and two cats were in the van and he had no place to stay that night.
“I had a weakness for someone who was displaced,” Frost says. “I had multiple friends lose a lot of things, if not everything, in that storm, and Mayor Bloomberg is on TV saying, ‘Let strangers stay with you.’ And I have this empty house and here’s this stranger with these pets. It seems like it’s your civic duty.” She agreed to let Bachman rent a room for the rest of November, in the house she was to share with three female roommates starting in December.
This is not, however, a heartwarming story of people pulling together in a crisis.
Frost quickly began to regret welcoming Bachman in — but she learned along the way that accepting even a month’s rent for one room in her house made her legally a landlord. When it comes to buyer’s remorse, landlords don’t have a lot of wiggle room.
Frost left town for a couple weeks; when she returned in late November, things took a strange turn. The house, which she spent 10 years renovating into her “dream house,” was a mess. The floor was damaged and the door to her bedroom was broken in, she says. The conversation with Bachman grew heated, shouting turned to shoving, and Bachman informed her he had no intention of moving by Dec. 1.
“He said, ‘There’s nothing you can do. As soon as you cashed that check for November, I became a tenant and you’re not going to be able to get me out.’ I ended up crying and offering to pay him to leave,” Frost says. “You feel like you’re in full possession of your home, you live in it, and then all of a sudden it totally switched. He was, like, ‘You can’t do anything. This is my house now. I’m never going to leave.’”
To Frost’s disappointment, she learned that he wasn’t entirely wrong.
She called the police; Bachman called them, too. Police advised Frost to seek an emergency eviction; she discovered there was no such thing. They told her to file for a protection-from-abuse order, Pennsylvania’s version of a restraining order; she then learned that PFAs are available only against relatives and sexual or intimate partners. She served Bachman with an eviction notice; he correctly informed her she’d have to take him to court. Obtaining a court date takes more than a month; appeals can drag on for a year.
“The laws protect him; they don’t protect me,” Frost says. “It became clear that this was going to be a really big problem.”
The situation deteriorated. In one bizarre incident, Frost says, Bachman attempted to push her down the stairs with his microwave. Bachman says only, “There was a microwave between us at one point and we had pushing back and forth.” Frost’s friend, Peter DeJong, says Bachman also pushed him multiple times with his hands and with the microwave. “He claims to have a law degree; whether he does or not, he knows how to not cross a line legally,” DeJong says. “Simple assault [such as shoving] — the District Attorney will not even look into a case like that.”
Finally, Frost filed a lawsuit in Landlord-Tenant Court; Bachman filed a 26-page counterclaim for $5,000, asserting that the diminutive Frost had assaulted him, damaged his property, endangered his cat, kicked his dog, committed fraud, defamed him, breached their contract and more. He also says Frost turned off the utilities, which is against the law. (As to whether the utilities are on, Frost doesn’t know. She believes Bachman has access to the utilities because he broke into the basement. But she’s afraid to return to the house to check.)
David Denenberg represented Frost at Landlord-Tenant Court, a branch of Municipal Court that Denenberg estimates sees 30,000 cases filed per year. Most of those cases never make it before a judge.
Michael Carroll of Community Legal Services, which represents poor tenants, says though the laws often support tenants, “the reality that plays out is different.” He figures landlords win more than 80 percent of cases. Many tenants lose by default, while others are convinced to sign ruinous settlements by landlords’ lawyers.
Bachman, though, thought the law was in his favor. He told City Paper he would have moved away, but wanted Frost to file for eviction first. “I’m happy to have her file an eviction notice. She files the filing fee, and then I piggyback on the filing fee and hit her with the counterclaim. That’s just tactics.”
If it were a scam to get a couple months’ free rent — move in, take over the house, threaten to stay forever, wait for an eviction — it would have worked. Frost’s lawyer offered him two months’ free rent if he’d leave. But Bachman, who has been involved in a number of civil suits and at least one landlord-tenant case, wanted a judge to hear his case.
On Jan. 15, he got his day in court. Bachman showed up with a broken coffee maker, which he said Frost had destroyed. Frost brought Bachman’s December rent check, which she hadn’t cashed, helping her case. The coffee maker didn’t impress Municipal Court Judge Marvin Williams, who found in favor of Frost and ordered Bachman to pay Frost $1,300, the equivalent of his back rent. “I find you to be totally incredible,” the judge told Bachman. “I don’t believe a word you say — and, frankly, you’re frightening.”
On Tuesday, Frost filed for possession of the house. But it could be weeks or more before she gets back in. Two of her three roommates backed out; the third, who rarely sleeps at Frost’s home, is looking for another place. Frost is renting an apartment until she can move home. She has taken a second job to cover the mortgage, rent and legal fees; a friend is setting up a website for donations (fundformelissa.tumblr.com). Frost says she’s both eager to return home and fearful of the damage she’ll find.
Bachman says that he’s looking for another place, but that Frost’s back rent may be a lost cause. “I don’t have any assets in Pennsylvania, so if I decide that I don’t want to pay that judgment, she has to try to come after me. It becomes so expensive for her.”
So, is there a moral to this story? Well, as Williams told Frost: “That’ll teach you about letting people into your house.”