Slumming it: Apartment living in Phila.
JUST ABOUT everyone that I have spoken to about renting outside of the Center City district has a horrible slumlord story to tell. Every month thousands of tenants like myself pay their rent on time, but the landlords refuse to make what most professionally trained contractors would deem as necessary repairs.
There are at least 1,547,607 Philadelphians and, according to the National Multi Housing Council, at least 16 percent of them are renters. The number of renters who live in Philly comprises equal the populations of Reno, Nev., or Scottsdale, Ariz.
Every apartment building I have lived in in this city has had a bug and/or mouse problem, leaking/cracked ceilings, black mold issues and blatant fire and safety hazards; all have been owned by slumlords who own multiple properties in Philadelphia. All the apartment buildings have been below adequate standards according to the laws that govern our great city, yet the slumlords could care less about abiding by the laws because they don't operate with a moral code and they don't suffer any severe financial consequences.
I have been renting apartments for 10 years in Philadelphia and not once has a landlord provided me with a certificate of rental suitability, which is the law of the land according to the Philadelphia Property Maintenance Code (Section PM-102.6.4).
Where I currently reside in the Northeast - talk about a disaster in the making - we have only one repairman who possesses no certifications or licenses that would attest to his aptitude to properly fix the maintenance problems that occur in the 200 apartment units built with 1960s construction. How is this arrangement even legal? In most instances when you're lucky enough to get a hold of the property manager, he promises you the maintenance man is going to show up - but he rarely does.
A few years ago, a housing and fire inspector showed up at my apartment after I made a referral to the 3-1-1 service line. She saw firsthand that we still had no heat in November and the same for my neighbor. I also provided the inspector with written proof that I had notified my slumlord in October that we had no heat. My wife and I even showed her our gas bill to prove that we were current on the bill because, even though we had no heat in our apartment, we still got charged for cooking gas. I spoke to her on the phone a few days later to do a follow-up. The inspector started arguing with me about why I was bothering her with this matter, and said, "Your landlord said you have heat."
When slumlords sell their properties it's usually to another slumlord. This crisis has become so outrageous that even city employees get in on the act. The slumlord that owns the apartment building on Frankford Avenue where I once lived is an assistant division engineer for the Water Department.
On Dec. 4, I sent a certified letter to Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, the chairwoman of the committee that oversees Licenses & Inspections, detailing my slumlord experiences over the years while living in Philadelphia. I included several pictures and my contact information in the letter, but the only response I got from her office was a signature indicating that my letter had been received.
As soon as you mention the word "slumlord" to a reputable law firm and say that you want to pursue a case, most lawyers run away from you before you even finish explaining to them why you want to sue your landlord in the first place. When was the last time you came across a law firm's advertisement on television or in print that stated that they desire slumlord cases? Law firms generally refuse to get involved and take on tenant cases because they have a thorough understanding of the gaping holes that lawmakers have left exposed, which slumlords can easily slither their way out of to play the system and continue their abuse against tenants.
Citizens of Philadelphia should not have to live like animals because the Department of Licenses & Inspections is not doing its due diligence. I realize that there have been budget cuts, but minimum living standards still must be maintained and enforced.
The sick part in all of this is how far tenants have lowered their standards on what they consider to be a good apartment in Philadelphia because slumlords own so many properties in the city. Over the years the majority of people who were born and raised in the city have complemented me on how nice my apartments looked, even though over time obvious cracks had developed on the ceilings and walls. They typically say, "Wow, you have a garbage disposal, that is really nice." I usually respond with the comment, "Watch what happens to the light fixture in my bedroom when I turn it on."
Jason Kaye is a Philadelphia writer and community activist.