Interviews & Profiles

Q&A with Philly Councilmember Rue Landau

The first-term lawmaker discusses her first piece of legislation and how a scooter gets her around City Hall

Landau, R, and Celena Morrison-McLean, executive director of the city’s Office of LGBT Affairs at Philadelphia City Hall with a transgender pride flag.

Landau, R, and Celena Morrison-McLean, executive director of the city’s Office of LGBT Affairs at Philadelphia City Hall with a transgender pride flag. PHILADELPHIA CITY COUNCILMEMBER RUE LANDAU’S OFFICE

Roughly six months into her first term as a Philadelphia City Councilmember, Rue Landau gets some assistance around City Hall – not from staff or security but from her scooter. Landau, who became the first openly LGBTQ member of City Council when she won an at-large seat, has hit the ground rolling after spending 10 years as a lawyer at the nonprofit organization Community Legal Services representing low-income tenants. 

Landau spoke with City & State on her first few months in office, what surprised her about working in City Hall and how she has prioritized transparency-focused legislation. 

How have you adjusted to life as a councilmember?

The thing that surprised me the most is how all of the councilmembers are so busy and pulled in so many physical directions at one time. You don't just pop into someone’s office, and suddenly they're sitting there and you can have a conversation. I really thought we were in City Hall a lot more often, and that’s not the case … It doesn't mean we can't catch each other by phone. I've been on the phone with council people as late as 11 at night and as early as 6:30 or 7 in the morning. 

I have spent so many years walking the wrong way around City Hall. I still struggle with fully understanding which way to turn to make the shortest walk down these amazingly long hallways … I have a Razor scooter, so if it’s just a meeting with members or staff, I just ride my scooter, and it doesn’t matter if I go the wrong way because I enjoy going the wrong way. 

You had your first piece of legislation pass: the Tax Preparation Transparency bill. What was that like?

It’s fantastic not just because it felt like a victory for my team and me but also because I’ve known about this being a problem in the community for so many years – and it was on the shortlist of what I wanted to do early on. 

To me, knowing about the problem and going in to fix it so quickly, it was just great. This is really something that will keep money in the pockets of Philadelphians. 

Can you elaborate a bit on the legislation and what it seeks to do?

Starting next year during tax season and moving forward, corporate tax preparers will have to disclose their fees upfront. This means no more hidden fees for consumers after going through an hours-long process of filling out forms … only to be hit with high fees at the end. There’s an estimate that $64 million could be returned to low-income Philadelphians if they use the free filing tax prep services, if they claim their earned income tax credit and get the most out of their tax returns. But what happens is that there are some unscrupulous corporate for-profit tax preparers who don't disclose their prices upfront. They use tricky ads to lure customers and at the end, folks are paying a significant portion of their tax return directly to these corporate tax preparers when it could be going into the pockets of Philadelphians. 

There are free tax preparation services like VITA, and anybody who's low-income, elderly, disabled, or limited English speakers is eligible for their services. What we hope to do is help them advertise their services much more at the beginning of tax season next year and, at the same time, require these tax preparers to disclose how much it's going to cost us. That will get more people to the VITA services. 

We heard stories from people who went through a very long process of getting their tax returns done. They were owed $800 just to find out they were paying $500 of it to the tax preparer. There are people who actually came out with zero dollars at the end of that process, and that's what we're trying to stop.

We're working with the city to maintain the expanded list of free tax prep places and ensure a robust campaign on the earned income tax credit – the nation’s best antipoverty initiative. It’s literally money going into the pockets of low-income people who can use it to pay for medicine, fix their car, buy diapers and groceries, or do anything else instead of that money going to these corporate tax preparers. It could make or break people. 

What is the history of your focus on consumer protection?

I was a lawyer at Community Legal Services for a decade. That’s really the beginning of my professional career and it created the foundation for how I see everything in Philadelphia when it comes to housing, family separation, consumer protection – all issues that low-income people are facing in Philadelphia. We need to make sure that we are protecting our most vulnerable residents.

What is the Consumer Protection Ordinance, and why is it important to you and the City of Philadelphia? 

We’re one of the last big cities in America without this piece of legislation. There’s a state law that parallels this new city law and but the state law has to be enforced by the state attorney general, the consumer arm of the DA’s office. But each of those entities can decide what cases they're pursuing, and as you can imagine, especially in the case of the DA, sometimes they’re very busy – and this is not at the top of their list. So what this bill does is, it gives the City of Philadelphia an expansive, great law that will allow the city's law department to go after any person or entity that engages in an unfair or deceptive business practice – and the remedies available are injunctive relief, civil penalties of up to $3,000 per violation, compensatory damages and restitution, and that includes the Philadelphia consumers harmed by the violation. It is just amazing to give the city this power to go after the bad actors. 

In Pennsylvania, you can collect on a court judgment for 20 years, but a lot of people don't even know they have a judgment from an old debt until they're trying to take affirmative positive action in their lives. There could be somebody who's trying to get their first mortgage and suddenly what’s popping up is an old court judgment from a scam that happened 10 years ago in Philadelphia. They had no idea but it’s held against them and the next thing you know, it's stopping them from bettering their lives.

Tell me more about your efforts to streamline the streetery process so that more restaurants can offer outdoor dining options.

I think we will see more streeteries. Restaurant owners and diners alike are so excited about this. We are also working closely with the administration to make sure that the internal bureaucracy of working with the city has been really streamlined. The Commerce Department is very eager to make that happen as well and so they’re working closely with us. We’re working all summer on this issue, and what you’ll see in the fall is more legislation making sure that sidewalk cafes and streeteries operate more easily and get through a more streamlined process. 

Debate continues over the mayor’s triage facility proposal and expansion of the existing treatment facility in the city’s Fairmount neighborhood. How do you see the process playing out?

What I believe we are seeing in Philadelphia right now is pushback from a lack of an open and transparent plan. There was never a strong, clear, understandable plan of how the administration was going to help the thousands of folks suffering from addiction – many of whom are unhoused in Kensington – and how they were going to fix this. 

It’s a long-term process; nobody has a magic wand that can fix overnight what has been neglected for many years. There are a lot of ongoing conversations, and I can’t talk much more about the internal dialogue, but I am working on it with colleagues and having conversations. But there's really got to be more of a transparent and open plan and dialogue on this. 

Compassionate treatment, helping people with housing, helping people with mental health issues, helping people with job readiness – they’re all essential pieces of the puzzle. I represent the whole city and this is hard stuff for a lot of neighborhoods, but we need to keep having conversations in council and with the administration to see how we can best start to solve a very complicated problem.