February 20, 2020 — Brith Sholom House, a 12-story apartment building on the 3900 block of Conshohocken Avenue, is home to 283 senior citizens, most of whom live on fixed incomes. For over a decade Brith Sholom House has lacked an updated fire suppression system that complies with the Philadelphia Code. And in the past few months, building residents have experienced outages of hot water and heat, along with infestations of pests like mice and raccoons. The building’s corporate owners, Brith Sholom Winit L.P., do not have a rental license due to their outstanding code violations. Under City law, they cannot legally collect rent. Despite this, they have continued to demand, every month, that their tenants pay rent they do not owe. Some tenants, asserting their legal rights and using the strongest tool they have to demand much-needed repairs, have refused.
“The past year living at Brith Sholom has been fraught with uncertainty, anxiety, and fear,” said tenant Diana Dukes. “The response to these issues by the owners and management has been lackadaisical at best and downright negligent at worst.”
Now, in an emergency motion filed on February 7, the owners requested that the Court grant them a rental license and force these tenants to pay—without providing any further assurances that legally required safety upgrades will be made. The Court rejected the emergency nature of the landlord’s request, but will hear arguments on the matter at the next scheduled hearing on March 10, 2020.
Diana Dukes and Samuel Wolfolk, two Brith Sholom tenants, filed a petition to intervene seeking to oppose their landlord’s motion and enforce their right to safe housing. They are represented by attorneys from the Public Interest Law Center and pro-bono co-counsel from Dechert LLP.
“I decided to stand up on behalf of myself and others to let our landlord know that we will not sit idly by and be treated with such callous disregard,” said Ms. Dukes. “We demand that they fulfill their legal obligation to supply us seniors with a safe, clean, and well-maintained place to live. We deserve this!”
“There is no reason that that the tenants of Brith Sholom should subsidize the profits of their landlord by paying rent they do not legally owe,” said George Donnelly, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center. “The owners of Brith Sholom have shirked their responsibilities for years—they should not be rewarded for their inaction.”
Three attorneys from the law firm of Dechert LLP – Michael Kichline, Nicolas Novy and Noah Becker – have agreed to represent the tenants on a pro bono basis. “Together with our partner the Public Interest Law Center, we are committed to litigating this matter to a successful conclusion,” said Mr. Kichline. “It is bad enough that Brith Sholom has knowingly failed to provide these vulnerable tenants with the safe housing they deserve, but the fact that they have been collecting rent in clear violation of the law and the Court’s prior rulings makes their conduct even more contemptuous.”
The building’s fire suppression system has been out of date since 2009, when Brith Sholom Foundation, the former owners of the building, received notice that their dry standpipe system was out of compliance with Philadelphia Fire Code. The current owners of the building purchased the high-rise in 2012. In 2018, they were cited by the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspection for violation of the City’s fire code. In April 2019, with the fire safety system and other violations of Philadelphia housing code still unaddressed, Brith Sholom Winit L.P. lost its rental license. That did not stop them from demanding rent from their tenants, violating Philadelphia law.
In October 2019—without having begun work to repair the fire system or address other code violations—the building owners asked the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas to grant them a conditional rental license. The Court refused, and reminded them that they could not collect rent until these violations were addressed.
Brith Sholom Winit L.P. tried the same tactic again two months later. They had paid a contractor’s deposit, but work had not yet begun on the new fire suppression system, and the Court rejected their request for a rental license again. When the owners revealed that they had continued to collect rent even after being reminded of the law just two months before, the judge was adamant: “That’s a violation of the law,” the judge said. “How can you do that? How are you collecting money? How are you doing anything? You can’t do that.”
On January 4, 2020, the worst fears of many residents were realized when a fire broke out in the building. Hundreds of residents, many of whom have mobility difficulties, evacuated or sheltered in their rooms as smoke began to fill several floors. Though their outdated system slowed down responding firefighters, no one was seriously injured. One resident was carried down 10 flights of stairs by her son, who happened to be visiting at the time.
In an audacious move, Brith Sholom Winit L.P. filed an Emergency Motion on February 7—their latest request for a rental license—even after a fire occurred in the building, highlighting the need for a new system. The owners now claim, despite illegally collecting rent for ten months and finding the money to put down a deposit on a contractor, that they are on the verge of insolvency and may be forced to shut down.
“Their ‘emergency’ request is especially outrageous after their tenants just faced a real emergency,” said Mr. Donnelly. “Landlords are responsible for providing a safe place to live for their tenants—period. The owners of Brith Sholom should be barred from collecting rent until they do that.”
Tenants in the building are refusing to accept this latest attempt from their landlord to avoid responsibility.
“We are in this fight for justice and fairness, and will not kowtow to greed and disrespect,” said Ms. Dukes.