ROBERT N. Coyle Sr., a notorious Philadelphia slumlord, stood before the judge yesterday in tears, minutes before he was to be sentenced for defrauding banks of more than $10 million.
Coyle, 68, told U.S. District Court Judge Stewart Dalzell about his struggles growing up poor in Kensington, the same neighborhood where he later acquired wealth. As a child, he lived in rickety houses and his mother worked in sweatshops and he slogged away in a paper factory as a teen, he said.
He became a real-estate mogul and admitted to the court he made mistakes when the economy soured. In making his plea, Coyle, who wore a gray suit over his hefty frame, took several breaks to compose himself.
"I am not a slumlord," he said, his voice quivering.
"I am not a bad man."
Calling the loan fraud scheme a "serious matter," with "serious consequences," Stewart sentenced Coyle to six years in federal prison, followed by five years of supervised release.
People who lived in Coyle's shells of houses left the courtroom outraged that the sentence wasn't stiffer.
"He should get prison until he dies," said Jeanette Marcano, a Kensington grandmother of seven. "That's the only justice for what he did. We got no justice here today."
Coyle told her she could rent to own a house on Lippincott Street in spring 2009. The house had no plumbing, interior walls or windows. She spent $10,000 to make it livable, but because Coyle stopped paying a bank loan, she got a notice that her house was going to sheriff's sale.
"He had made me believe the house was mine," she said.
"Ever since then it's been a living nightmare. I'm still living in fear that I might get kicked out," she said. "We feel like we've been smacked in the face once again."
Beginning in 1997, Coyle formed Landvest and at least nine other companies, all operated from a rowhouse office in Port Richmond. He obtained more than $15 million in bank loans on nearly 300 homes he rented out. As the housing market grew sluggish, he let the vast majority fall into disrepair.
Coyle offered these homes "as-is" with rent-to-own agreements. Scores of low-income people poured their own money into the houses, believing that they were buying their first home and getting their slice of the American Dream. To others he offered rent.
Coyle borrowed $3.5 million from East River Bank and $6.6 million from Republic First Bank, but lied to the banks about some of the property titles and the income from the homes that he put up as collateral, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Kay Costello said.
In 2008 Coyle, whom tenants dubbed "Slumlord Millionaire," stopped paying his loans. Tenants began receiving notices that their homes were headed for sheriff's sale and the banks moved to foreclose.
The Daily News chronicled Coyle's crumbling empire in October 2009. Attorneys, some of whom work for nonprofit legal agencies, have fought to halt the sheriff's sales and help some rent-to-own tenants stay in their homes.
"The most tragic part of the scam is that Robert Coyle exploited the hard work and determination of his victims," Jennifer Schultz, supervising attorney of Community Legal Services, wrote to Dalzell.
"They saw rent-to-own as an alternative to achieve the American dream," she wrote. "What Robert Coyle sold them was the American nightmare."
Coyle pleaded guilty to two counts of loan fraud in October 2012.
In addition to the prison term, Dalzell ordered Coyle to pay nearly $6.5 million in restitution, yet Coyle told the court he is "broke."
Coyle has to report to prison July 8.