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Broken elevators terrify older people and those with disabilities in Philly apartment buildings

Two apartment complexes in West Philadelphia have been plagued by elevator outages, in some cases leaving mobility-impaired residents trapped on the upper floors.

Lawyer Adam Weintraub-Barth with the SeniorLAW Center and resident Earl Dupree, 76, outside Haddington Elderly Housing.
Lawyer Adam Weintraub-Barth with the SeniorLAW Center and resident Earl Dupree, 76, outside Haddington Elderly Housing.Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

One of the two elevators at the Haddington Elderly Housing complex in West Philadelphia has been down for three months. Resident Earl Dupree said the other one has been on the fritz, too — pointing to a handwritten sign on the doors that ominously warns riders to “keep feet on floor.”

Last month, when both elevators were down, Dupree said paramedics had to carry a tenant down the steps during a medical incident. The busted lifts have left many older tenants in the 136-unit federally subsidized housing complex fearful.

“We’re all gonna die in here if there’s an emergency,” Dupree said. “Most people can’t use the steps.”

Recent breakdowns in Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and San Diego have similarly trapped older and disabled people in their apartments for days. And Philadelphia is experiencing at least two right now.

Three miles from Haddington, the sole elevator in each of the two apartment buildings at Inglis Gardens on Belmont Avenue, a low-income complex for people with disabilities, breaks down regularly. A recent outage left Carla Laws, who uses a wheelchair, trapped in her second-floor apartment for a week.

“It’s very, very dangerous,” said Laws, 70. “We all have to cancel doctors appointments.”

Advocates said elevator outages mainly impact low-income Philadelphians who cannot afford to hire attorneys to fight against unresponsive landlords — and pose an added risk for people who are older or have disabilities.

“They become prisoners in their own homes,” said Karen Buck, executive director at SeniorLAW Center, a nonprofit that aims to protect legal rights for older adults. “It’s unacceptable, particularly when you have federal subsidies going to these landlords.”

In buildings with subpar maintenance, elevator outages often go hand in hand with other issues like broken air-conditioning units or poor ventilation. Beyond the immediate safety risks, outages can also create social isolation, said Pam Walz, supervising attorney in the Health and Independence Unit at Community Legal Services.

“It’s a huge problem when you have older adults who need to get to medical appointments if they need to be able to safely evacuate a building,” Walz said. “But they also need to go out into the community to see friends or family.”

Property managers at the Haddington complex said the working elevator is in good shape and blamed the delayed repairs on a back-ordered part through the elevator repair company.

Dyann M. Roth, president and CEO of the nonprofit Inglis, which bills itself as the region’s largest provider of “fully accessible” affordable housing, said it is seeking emergency repairs but also plans to construct additional elevators.

“I feel horrible that our residents and staff are experiencing this,” Roth said.

‘They’re scared to death’

The Haddington building is beset by other problems — water-damaged ceilings, exposed floor drains, and a broken ventilator in the windowless hallways of the building.

Dupree said the property management company, the New Jersey-based Michaels Organization, has promised to discuss the elevators and other issues, but no meetings have happened since April. Dupree accused the property managers of “giving us the runaround.”

Laura Zaner, vice president of marketing and communications for Michaels, said the elevator repair company would have the second elevator running soon. If the only working elevator also breaks down, Zaner said, Michaels personnel is on-site to assist with evacuation in the event of a fire.

Dupree is doubtful. Smoke filled the building last month after a water heater caught fire, and he said no one came knocking.

“Nobody came to check on nobody here,” he said.

Most residents were afraid of confronting management about problems, Dupree said, especially after Michaels recently claimed many tenants owed back rent ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Many have been threatened with evictions, he added, or told they were at risk of losing their federal subsidy.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development subsidizes 70% of the rent for each unit at Haddington, while residents pay the other 30%.

“They’re scared to death,” Dupree said. “Management is always threatening to evict them. They live by themselves, they don’t have family, they don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Zaner denied that residents had been threatened with evictions.

After The Inquirer visited Haddington on Wednesday, building managers chastised Dupree for inviting reporters into the building, according to his attorney, Adam Weintraub-Barth with the SeniorLAW Center.

“Their landlord would rather resort to scare tactics and threaten a senior citizen for raising his voice about the injustices he’s facing than to stay on top of actively managing, maintaining, and repairing their building,” Weintraub-Barth said. (Zaner said tenants need approval to give building tours.)

Zaner said a meeting with the tenants group is in the works.

Inglis Gardens plagued by outages

The sole elevator at the easternmost Inglis Gardens apartment building went down before Memorial Day weekend and wasn’t restored until the following week.

Roth, the Inglis CEO, acknowledged that such outages occurred “way too often.” Last year, one outage lasted a month. She said she didn’t know why the buildings were developed in 2016 with one elevator shaft each, despite the targeted tenant base of people with disabilities.

Inglis Gardens is one of a dozen affordable housing complexes developed by the Inglis Foundation, a nonprofit that also runs Inglis House, a regulated skilled nursing facility for people in wheelchairs. (Inglis House is not experiencing elevator issues.)

Roth said affected residents are given immediate notice about outages. Inglis has offered hotel placements, meal deliveries, and even “literally had ambulance service carry them up and down the steps” for doctors appointments, Roth said. Laws, the resident who uses a wheelchair, said no notices were sent.

“I noticed when I went to the elevator and pushed a button, and it didn’t come,” Laws said.

A spokesperson for the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which provides voucher subsidies to Inglis Gardens, said the agency had not received complaints but it would “conduct an inspection if requested.”

These concerns have led Inglis to seek an architect to begin designs for additional elevator shafts — without eliminating any housing units.

That decision comes amid financial turbulence in recent years. In July, the board moved to sell the 252-bed Inglis House facility to a for-profit firm, but withdrew from negotiations in January after a bigger-than-expected increase in Pennsylvania Medicaid rates.

It could cost millions — but it is necessary, Walz said. A repair firm replaced the sensor in one elevator that broke before Memorial Day weekend. A few days later, the elevator in the other building broke down. Both were running again as of Friday.

“The only solution we have is to build the new elevators,” Roth said.