In a lawsuit filed today, a low-income Philadelphia renter stood up for her legal right to live in safe and healthy housing, alleging that the landlord and property manager rented her a property that did not have heat, was infested with rodents, and had raw sewage leaking in the basement. The lawsuit alleges violations of state and local laws which are not used enough because they are not well known and there are too few lawyers for poor tenants to enforce those laws.
The suit was filed by Philadelphia resident Yazmin Vazquez against her former landlord, Marc A. Gilbert, and his property management company, Obara Investment Realty Advisors, LLC.
“People would be shocked at the conditions of many Philadelphia apartments and the number of low-income Philadelphians who live in properties that are unfit for human habitation,” said Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, one of her lawyers and Staff Attorney at the Public Interest Law Center. “Landlords should heed the message of this suit: Be prepared to follow the law and repair and maintain your property, not just collect rent to get rich quick. Compliance is not optional.”
“Habitability and housing quality issues are most severe for the lowest-income households and further impact upon a low-income tenant’s ability to keep up with rent and other household expenses,” said Michael Carroll, Senior Attorney at Community Legal Services, another of Ms. Vazquez’s attorneys. “Poor housing quality and owner neglect means higher utility expenses, higher medical expenses, disruption of school and work, and overall poorer physical and mental health.”
The suit alleges that Gilbert and Obara failed to provide Ms. Vazquez with a habitable property and failed to provide her the required certification of habitability. By March 2016, the Department of Licenses and Inspections determined that the property was unfit for human habitation. When Ms. Vazquez tried to stand up to Gilbert and Obara on her own they retaliated against her by attempting to illegally lock her out of her apartment, and then by making false statements in an eviction lawsuit in Philadelphia landlord-tenant court. (That suit was withdrawn as soon as Ms. Vazquez secured legal counsel.)
The lawsuit requests economic damages, restitution, emotional distress, and punitive damages.
“Ms. Vasquez’s situation is typical of the many tenants in the city who are ignored, intimidated and often face retaliation by landlords who refuse to repair their substandard rental properties,” said Phil Lord, Executive Director at Tenant Union Representative Network. “The results are the overall deterioration of the housing stock in the city and the unnecessary suffering, injury, and illness of many of its residents, half of whom are tenants.”
“My apartment made me physically sick and I was stressed out all the time,” said Ms. Vazquez. “Windows cracked from the intense cold, the smell of raw sewage made me sick to my stomach, and mice and rats ate my food. I am filing this lawsuit not just for myself but for all tenants in the same boat. Bad landlords will do this again and again—to the next tenant and the one after that—until the law stops them. No one should have to live like this.”
Photos and videos from the apartment may be viewed at http://www.www.pubintlaw.org/safehealthyhousing/.
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The Public Interest Law Center uses high-impact legal strategies to improve the well-being and life prospects of vulnerable people by ensuring they have access to fundamental resources including a high-quality public education, health care, employment, housing, safe and healthy neighborhoods and the right to vote. For more information visit www.www.pubintlaw.org or follow on Twitter @PubIntLawCtr.
Community Legal Services (CLS) assists clients when they face the threat of losing their homes, incomes, health care, and even their families. CLS attorneys and other staff provide a full range of legal services, from individual representation to administrative advocacy to class action litigation, as well as community education and social work. CLS is nationally recognized as a model legal services program that has helped more than one million people since its founding 50 years ago. For more information, please visit www.clsphila.org or follow us on twitter at @clsphila.