Shortly after moving into their North Philadelphia home last summer, the Shiver family had a leaking sink and a shower that no longer worked. The electricity largely soon gave out, too.
Curtis Shiver, his wife, and their four children could deal with most of that, or could wait the few weeks it took for their landlord to resolve the problem.What they were not ready for was the sewage backup in late February.
"We had literally poop everywhere. Poop, tissue, pee everywhere throughout the whole house," Carolyn Shiver said.
The city's Department of Licenses and Inspections found 10 violations inside the house, including raw sewage in the kitchen. The house was labeled as unfit for human habitation.
That designation is one that L&I gives to more than 300 homes each year for not having proper plumbing, running water or electricity, heat in the winter, or other basic necessities. Although some of those homes are owner-occupied or city-owned housing, many are private rentals — yet don't have rental licenses. An Inquirer and Daily News review of 507 properties deemed "unfit for human habitation" between January 2016 and the end of May of this year showed 180 had rental licenses and 34 more had vacant-property licenses. The rest had no licenses.
According to Philadelphia code, a landlord without a rental license has no right to collect rent.
In cases where a property owner does have a rental license but L&I deems the house or apartment unfit for human habitation, the landlord cannot collect rent. Landlords, however, don't always follow that rule.
Shiver said that following the sewage backup, the rental-management company that oversees his home on the 1600 block of French Street told him not to worry about the $750 monthly rent payment for March. The Shivers didn't live at the house during most of March anyway. Shiver said his rental insurance paid for various hotels (one in Center City, one in the Northeast, and one in Cherry Hill) for his family to stay while they waited for their landlord, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Moshe Zenwirth, to fix the plumbing problem.
A month later, the Shivers returned to flushable toilets but a myriad of other issues — a backyard with broken and uneven concrete slabs where contractors dug to fix the problem pipe and a hole into the basement that allows water to gush through whenever it rains.
Nevertheless, Curtis Shiver, who is paid $13 an hour as a tree-keeper for the Department of Parks and Recreation, paid rent in April, May and June. As of Friday, the property was still labeled as unfit by L&I. Shiver says he wants a refund.
Zenwirth did not respond to calls for comment. Calls to the management company Shiver says is in charge also went unreturned.
Rasheeda Phillips, managing attorney of the Community Legal Services housing unit, said that sometimes landlords will simply evict tenants because they complained to L&I or withheld rent until the owner fixed the issues.
Yazmin Vasquez had to fight her landlord in court last year after he evicted and sued her for lack of payment. Vazquez's apartment in the city's Logan section was deemed unfit for human habitation because of various issues, including lack of heat in the winter, and rodent and cockroach infestation. Her house smelled like sewage, too, she said.
"But I had nowhere else to go," said Vasquez, who is on a fixed disability income.
She said she tried reasoning with her landlord to get him to fix the apartment, turn on the heat, or at least lower her rent.
"I complained over and over about my sewage problems and my heating problems, and it was always, 'It's too costly,'" she said.
Vazquez said she learned from the Tenant Union Representative Network (TURN) that she could put rent money into escrow and ask the landlord to fix the problems. She did so in a written notice to her landlord in March 2016.
"He comes back three days later with an eviction notice, telling me to go," she said. He then sued Vazquez for lack of payment.
Vasquez connected with Dan Ackelsberg-Urevick, an attorney at the Public Interest Law Center, who represented her in court. She won her case and is now living elsewhere.
Sometimes, it's L&I that, by doing its job and issuing a cease-operations order on a hazardous property, is "effectively evicting" residents, Phillips said.
Just last week, L&I had to shut down a property on the 900 block of Duncannon Avenue in Logan due to severe uninhabitable conditions.
Based on a complaint from the son of a man who lived at the property, L&I obtained a court order to go inside the single-family home that was housing at least five tenants, and it was full of filth. An L&I inspector had to wear a hazmat suit to go inside because of a severe bedbug infestation, said Ralph DiPietro, deputy commissioner.
The residents were ordered to leave the house because it was labeled hazardous and unfit for human habitation.
The property had previously been labeled unfit for human habitation in 2006 and the owner, Janice Hammond, was cited with numerous violations. It was again cited in 2014 for structural issues, including the roof and supporting walls, but L&I's public portal shows the violations as unresolved. L&I's internal system should have flagged Hammond's rental license renewal application when it came up. It didn't.
"The property owner should not have been able to get a rental license with outstanding violations," said Karen Guss, spokeswoman for L&I. She said the system that manages 80,000 rental license is not perfect, and some things fall through the cracks.
"For the most part, we've been reassured that there's not some huge systemic problem where licenses are being given out willy-nilly, but there's definitely mistakes," she said. L&I is investigating the other six properties Hammond owns (all but two have active rental licenses).