Senior citizens terrified of losing their home packed Courtroom 446 in City Hall on Thursday, filling the seats, lining the walls, finding space where they could for walkers and crutches.
They are among nearly 300 people, most of them elderly, who live in Brith Sholom House Apartments, a 12-floor high-rise in Wynnefield Heights that the Department of Licenses and Inspections cited for a fire suppression system out of compliance with Philadelphia ordinance. A year ago, L&I told the building’s owner, Brith Sholom Winit LP, to replace the standpipe with a design that in the event of a fire will deliver water to the sprinklers faster.
The work hasn’t been done. Residents’ worst fear on Thursday — that Common Pleas Court Judge Lyris Younge would order them out of their homes so the building could undergo an emergency upgrade — didn’t happen. The standpipe, though, isn’t their only issue. They say they’re plagued with leaks, pests, and unreliable hot water and heat.
Tenants include veterans, people with disabilities, and a significant number who rely on public assistance to pay rent. They believe the owner, who did not respond to multiple interview requests, just wants them out.
“The management, I think, has contempt for poor people,” said Dee Blanard, 71, who has lived in Brith Sholom House, 3939 Conshohocken Ave., since 2012.
Younge ordered the owner to have permitting for the standpipe renovation underway by March 10. After the hearing, Steve Bertil, representing the owner, said there was no intention to oust current tenants.
“I’ve never heard that that’s what any owner was trying to do,” he said.
Residents, though, fear that complaining could lead L&I to bar people from living in the building.
“I’m not calling and giving complaints anymore, because I fear it is going to hasten their closing,” Blanard said.
Experiences at other buildings give Brith Sholom residents reason to worry. In 2016, senior residents at Overmont House were relocated to make the building available for student housing. A year later, Penn Wynn Apartments abruptly evicted senior, disabled, and veteran residents and now plans to renovate the building with a gym, dog park, social lounge, saltwater pool, and penthouse clubhouse.
At the Pavilion, next door to Brith Sholom, tenants had to temporarily leave last summer after the generator failed, said Rachel Garland, an attorney with Community Legal Services — a problem that remains unresolved.
The fear of sudden eviction prompted the city to pass a law early this year to offer some protections to month-to-month renters. Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. proposed the bill and has been watching the situation at Brith Sholom, which is in his district.
The people who call Brith Sholom home say the building has the potential to be great for seniors.
“We love it here,” said Ann Gould, 73, who moved in six months ago. “We have not met anybody we really couldn’t get along with.”
The building was constructed in 1968 and until 2012 was mandated as senior and disabled housing. It includes community rooms, dining facilities, and a library, but it needs maintenance. Carpets curl at the seams, creating tripping hazards. There are puddles of standing water. Residents, who pay up to $1,100 a month in rent without subsidies, described an incident where a ceiling tile fell, revealing a raccoon peering down.
William Moffett, vice president of the property management company Aloft, declined to speak to a reporter Thursday.
“It’s just completely going in a different direction from when I moved here,” said Suzanne Thompson, 72, who is moving out. “They’re not taking care of the people who are currently here.”
Others, though, can’t leave.
“I’m on hospice care,” Gould said. “I don’t have the energy to do another move, nor should I have to.”
Tim Kearney, with the Tenant Union Representative Network, noted the building is 74% occupied. People could be temporarily moved within the building to accommodate construction, he said.
Bertil said the owner would have trouble paying for the new standpipe, estimated to cost $258,000. Moffett drew the judge’s ire when he testified that a contract was drafted in September for what will likely be an eight- to 10-month project, but it has not been signed.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Younge said, “there’s no reason you couldn’t have already started.”