Donnie Evans, an itinerant handyman in the city of Chester, Pa., desperately needed somewhere to stay.
A former dockworker who had struggled to get by since the city’s shipyards closed in 1989, Evans, 51, was in a fight with his girlfriend. The one thing they agreed on was that it would be best for him to move out of the apartment they shared — and fast. The situation felt urgent; he had no leads on apartments he could afford, and the waiting lists for the Chester Housing Authority’s Section 8 vouchers and project-based housing were closed. When a landlord Evans knew offered him a place, he did not refuse.
The landlord, Allan Aigeldinger Jr., who in the past had hired him for the occasional lawn mowing or house painting or, sometimes, Evans says, a quiet illegal dump job, promised a whole house for $450 a month.
The handwritten agreement Evans and Aigeldinger signed last October is a strange sort of lease. It committed Evans to paying $450 a month in rent for a home that wasn’t legally habitable and couldn’t be occupied despite the rent being paid — a violation of a Chester law forbidding property owners from renting property without a certificate of occupancy. The agreement stated that Evans must supply “all labor and materials” needed to restore the 74-year-old, six-room duplex to livable condition. Once those repairs were done, the agreement decreed that Aigeldinger would apply for an occupancy permit “at owner expense.” Only after the application was processed and the city had issued a certificate of occupancy could Evans move into the house, a stucco twin built in 1940. The agreement included no provisions detailing the repairs needed or suggesting a timeline for the work.
Aigeldinger, who would months later admit in court he thought the agreement was favorable to Evans, took the first rent payment in cash from his not-tenant tenant, signed the agreement and issued a handwritten receipt before handing over the keys.
Though the lease said Evans wasn’t to move into the place, Evans maintains the landlord knew he planned to live there. “He wrote the lease, had me sign it. I thought I was doing the right thing. I thought I had gotten a decent place to stay,” Evans recalls. Aigeldinger declined to comment for this article.
As soon as he saw the place he had paid for, Evans realized his mistake. The house was really a shell of a duplex. Asbestos drooped down from one of the holes in a second-floor ceiling. Wind cut through cracks around the windows. The floor in the kitchen was completely torn up. Without the certificate of occupancy, Evans could not legally hook up running water, heat or electricity. A neighbor would periodically bring over water to flush the toilet.
Evans refused to give Aigeldinger money after his initial payment. But with nowhere else to go, he stayed in the decrepit shell through last winter, one of the coldest and snowiest in recent memory. In the bedroom, the wall turned black from the kerosene heater Evans lit to keep from freezing. Blankets were duct-taped over the windows to keep the winds at bay. He slept in a coat and gloves. It was a situation that could have turned instantly deadly.
Evans felt wronged. He never imagined he would be the one summoned to court. But in March 2014, that is exactly what happened. Aigeldinger sued Evans for $2,250 of unpaid rent and a failure to obtain a certificate of occupancy. The case was on shaky legal ground; local law in Chester forbids a property owner from collecting rent or “recover[ing] possession of the premises” without a certificate of occupancy. Evans found a lawyer through Widener University School of Law’s Health, Education, and Legal Assistance Project, a non-profit civil legal aid program. When the lawyer, Jordan Mickman, called Aigeldinger, the landlord claimed Evans wasn’t supposed to move in until after the repairs were complete, citing the handwritten lease both men had signed in October. He dismissed the complaints as the delusions of a drug addict. “He called me a crackhead. I don’t even smoke cigarettes,” recalls Evans, who opted to file a counterclaim against the landlord with the goal of retrieving his $450 plus damages, expenses he incurred working on the house and court costs.
In May, Judge Wilden Horace Davis, at the Delaware County Magisterial District Court essentially called the case a draw. Evans got $450 from Aigeldinger and was ordered to pay $185.66 in court fees, and Aigeldinger was awarded possession of the house and charged court fees of $78.93. The courts dismissed a separate case filed by the city against the landlord for renting without a certificate of occupancy.
When Evans received the $450 in mid-September, he quickly spent it on food and temporary stays in a motel. He still hasn’t paid court costs and can’t foresee a time when he will have the money to do so. Since leaving Aigeldinger’s property in March, he has bounced around, crashing with his mother and acquaintances, and briefly reuniting with his ex-girlfriend. Mickman has tried to get him into a shelter but to be admitted, Evans needs a government-issued photo ID, which he doesn’t have. When asked in late September if he would describe himself as homeless, he was quiet for a moment before responding.
Chester was once an industrial powerhouse where ships were built, locomotives soldered and Fords assembled. All that was a long time ago and it shows. In 1998, the state built a prison on the grounds of the shuttered shipyard where Evans had worked, and before him, tens of thousands of Southern African-Americans who migrated north to build tankers during World War II. Chester’s lynchpin employer, the Sun Shipbuilding and Drydocking Company, employed more blacks than any other company in America during the war but immediately shed most of these positions as the number of jobs fell from 35,000 in 1943 to 4,000 in 1947. Today, fewer people live in the entire city than worked on that waterfront in 1943. Backhoes have demolished entire neighborhoods, leaving weedy lots where Chester feels almost abandoned. The occasional loose pit bull roams around the less trafficked areas.
Built in 1724, this Chester building is the second oldest courthouse in the US. It was used as Chester’s City Hall from the 1850s until the 1960s. Today it stands vacant in disrepair.
But if Chester is a mausoleum, it is one with almost 34,000 people living within its dilapidated walls — the majority of them — 61.5 percent — paying rent to do so.
Chester is what is known, in real estate industry jargon, as a “weak market city.” The phrase means what it sounds like. The city is poor and its economy stagnant. The median home sale price in Chester in 2012 was $20,000, compared to $69,350 in nearby Wilmington and $98,000 in Philadelphia. Fewer than half of Chester’s working-age adults are employed, and a third of the population is living at or below the poverty line. In a city where median rent is $790, 51.5 percent of households pay 35 percent or more of their income to their landlords.
At a time when some of its peers in the region — like Wilmington and Philadelphia — are showing signs of new life, Chester remains trapped in its postindustrial doldrums. One result of this grim stasis is a severely compromised housing market.
“It’s attractive for people to buy cheap properties and rent them out for as much as they can get without maintaining them, because people in Chester really don’t have very much recourse,” said Robert Salvin, a lawyer who used to work in the city for Community Impact Legal Services and now runs Bala Cynwyd’s Philadelphia Debt Clinic and Consumer Law Center.
Aigeldinger bought the shell he rented to Evans for $20,000 in 2007, according to Delaware County records. Records indicate that he made no significant investment into the house after buying it and instead, let it sit vacant until Evans expressed an interest in moving in. A cursory search of county property records shows that he owns other inexpensive properties in Chester.
In 2012, there were 667 home sales in the city, but only 33 were purchased with a mortgage. (Investors generally finance their purchases through other means, so comparing mortgages to total sales is a reliable way to measure owner-occupancy.) Nationally about half of home sales are completed without a mortgage, but in Chester the proportion is nearer to one mortgage for every 20 sales. There are responsible landlords in town, ranging from larger actors like Penn Rose, which manages properties in seven states, to the members of Chester Netters, a network of roughly 40 landlords who often work with the housing authority and its Section 8-wielding tenants. But the city has also proven to be a magnet for incompetent and downright neglectful absentee operators.
There are so few decent landlords in Chester that Mickman tries to reserve the full weight of judgment for the very worst.
“In Chester, [the term] slumlord has to be used very selectively to maintain the value of the word,” Mickman said.
Local government is no match for the market either. While many of the most desirable apartments are owned, subsidized or managed by the local housing authority, those apartments are largely spoken for. Like every other housing authority in the nation, the Chester Housing Authority is struggling to maintain its services with ever-declining support from Washington.
Outside of the housing authority, things are just as strained. With very little property tax revenue coming in to City Hall, the single city inspector charged with making sure properties meet code regulations is stretched thin. (City Councilman and Director of Public Safety William A. Jacobs did not respond to numerous requests for an interview, and messages left with the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the fire department, the building and housing division and the health department, went unanswered.)
When the inspections do happen, impact is limited.
“I have never seen a Chester tenant bring a landlord to court and win, except with a lawyer, and even then [the odds are not good],” Mickman said.
Salvin too remembers judges more sympathetic to landlords than tenants: “They would [kick tenants] out for not paying the rent right and left, not really paying much attention to issues of habitability.”
Court records support the lawyers’ memories. In June, July and August 2013, landlords filed 352 lawsuits against tenants in the Delaware County Magisterial District Court that serves Chester. The three judges who see Chester cases — Dawn L. Vann, Spencer B. Seaton Jr. and Wilden Davis — ruled in favor of the landlords 285 times. A direct ruling for the tenant only occurred three times. (Thirty cases were withdrawn, 24 dismissed without prejudice, and 10 settled.)
The patterns reflect trends found in other cities. In Philadelphia, for instance, the Tenants’ Action Group reviewed more than 100 cases in that city’s municipal court in 1996 and found that 92 percent of all cases favored the landlord. Tenants were evicted 96 percent of the time when they alleged, with documentation, housing code violations.
Jordan Mickman lives in Delaware, but spends most of his days driving around the city, meeting with clients. (Mickman’s car is covered in bumper stickers, including: “It’s Only a Class War if the 99% Fights Back” and “Robin Hood Was Right: Yes We Can Tax the Rich.”) He grew up in the affluent Philadelphia suburb of Lower Merion, which enjoys some of the best public schools in the state. He realized from an early age the staggering advantages that are granted by the accident of birth.
The lawyers do everything from handling disability claims and advocating for a client’s right to public assistance (like food stamps), to defending against eviction and foreclosures. His clients are usually younger than Evans, but all live in poverty. Many of his cases relate to housing issues.
Mickman is measured when he talks about the cases he handles. Many of the landlords he comes into contact with aren’t bad people, he says, they are simply unprepared to provide housing for an incredibly high-need population. One client, a mother of three undergoing intensive cancer treatment, couldn’t afford to keep paying rent. Although she didn’t pay rent for a year, the landlord didn’t badger or evict the family. He simply stopped paying the mortgage and water bill. Mickman was able to get the water turned back on, but the family was eventually evicted from the house when a property management company took over. He doesn’t know what happened to them.
“Landlords are also victimized by economic and housing market forces that are beyond their control — if they charge rents that are too high they can’t rent out the units,” says Elizabeth Hersh, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania. “Sometimes there are real slumlords but it’s often a real economic issue and they can’t afford to clean up the places.”
One of the most notorious Chester slumlords, Jeff Bobb of Cherry Hill, New Jersey was finally charged in court in 2010, after running a crumbling empire of roughly 200 properties for more than a decade. Bobb eventually lost all his properties to foreclosure, and pleaded guilty to one count of reckless endangerment after a tenant suffered potentially fatal carbon monoxide poisoning in 2010. (In a probable cause affidavit, reported by the Delaware County Daily Times, Chester’s fire chief told a police officer “this type of problem is ongoing with Mr. Bobb, who owns properties all over the city.”)
But Bobb is not representative of the landlords in most of Mickman’s caseload, which generally revolve around relatively small amounts of money and tricky legal technicalities that neither side fully understands. “[Most of these] landlords aren’t skilled businesspeople, they aren’t lawyers, they just go to Staples and get a form lease,” Mickman said.
Everything changes for those low-income renters who manage to make it on the Chester Housing Authority rolls. The CHA serves 2,366 families, about 8,000 people. More than half of these households — 1,566 families — receive Section 8 vouchers, which don’t have to be used within city limits but often are.
When a tenant has a Section 8 housing voucher, the landlord receives the tenant’s payment directly from the CHA and thus, is accountable to the agency and its underwriter, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. If a landlord does not maintain acceptable housing, the government can deny them further business from the program. Mickman recalls one client, a young woman whose requests for repairs were met with a deluge of bizarre text messages, but no action. When she tried to move, the landlord refused to sign the necessary paperwork. Then she began receiving notices that the house would soon be foreclosed upon. Panicked, she turned to Mickman. He simply directed her to CHA, which looked into her claims (they average 4,100 inspections a year) and terminated payments to the landlord. They then helped her find a new apartment. But the Section 8 waiting list is lengthy and closed to new applicants. When the Section 8 waiting list opened for a month in 2012 — the first such opportunity in a decade — 1,300 applications were received. There was only room on the list for 500.
Spots in the Housing Authority’s own buildings — CHA also controls 801 units of project-based public housing — are just as difficult to get. The waiting list for these units is also closed; by natural turnover, it takes at least five years for those currently on it to have a chance at access. This housing crunch was exacerbated by the loss of 454 units during recent renovations under HOPE VI, a HUD program that provided a series of three federal grants to the Chester Housing Authority to demolish postwar units and replace them with nicer, larger homes for fewer people. These sites — such as Chatham Estates and Wellington Ridge — are now home to some of the nicest units in the city, but the uniquely robust protections available through public housing reach fewer families.
“Everybody wants to come here, this is one of the best sites,” says Tara Fontaine, who lives in Chatham Estates and grew up in the development, then known as Lamokin Village. “These are real nice, roomier [than the old units]. But it would have been nice for everybody to come back, because we were like a close knit family.”
It wasn’t so long ago that Chester residents would gamble on the private market rather than subject themselves to conditions in the city’s public housing.
The first public housing in Chester came as a direct response to the wartime boom on the waterfront. Suddenly, there were tens of thousands of workers who needed places to live. Four public housing developments with hundreds of units apiece came online in the 1940s and early 1950s, all of them strictly segregated. From the start, the Chester Housing Authority acted as a patronage operation for the Delaware County Republican machine, a powerful institution based in the city, but with tentacles wrapped around almost every municipality in the county. Mobster and one-time Chester mayor (1968-1979) Jack Nacrelli got his start as a manager of one project and later became chairman of the whole Housing Authority.
Gradually, Chester became poorer, losing factories and middle-class residents, and even the white working-class and black middle class who largely followed their neighbors out of the city. As the Housing Authority began strictly serving the highest needs and poorest segment of the population, the consummately unprofessional bureaucracy flailed. Its tenants, now almost entirely African-American, were left in mismanaged, deteriorating complexes. A 1982 Philadelphia Inquirer article on the William Penn homes described, “weeds straining through broken concrete, bedsprings turning to rust, garbage spilling from bags and aluminum cans” and heroin dealers as thick as a “swarm of bees” around any car that ventured in to the project. Another, from 1994, claimed “rats and the stench of raw sewage” were a “daily plague.”
“Chester has a history of being rife with political corruption and the Housing Authority didn’t escape that,” said Steve Fischer, who has been the court-appointed executive director of the CHA since 2005. “It’s an institution that a lot of federal dollars flow through, so there were a lot of jobs to be given out and the local political system took full advantage of it. We are talking about what was probably the worst housing authority in the country.”
The Chester Housing Authority’s remarkable turnaround began in 1990 with a class-action lawsuit filed by the Delaware County Legal Assistance Association on behalf of a public housing tenant named Carmilia Velez and nine other CHA tenants. The tenants argued that local housing officials weren’t maintaining public housing, compromising tenants’ health and safety. HUD stepped in soon thereafter, but by 1994 neither the tenants nor U.S. District Court Judge Norma Shapiro were satisfied with the progress. The Chester Housing Authority has remained under judicial receivership ever since.
Today, the William Penn homes are tidy and free of litter, let alone raw sewage or open-air heroin markets. Since the housing authority went into judicial receivership, the entire stock has been razed, rehabbed or rebuilt, sometimes in partnership with private developers under the aegis of HUD’s Hope VI program.
The Chester Housing Authority built Wellington Ridge ( right) in 2003. Residents live in tidy homes alongside blighted privately owned homes (left).
“The federal investment encouraged private investors to come into Chester and upgrade hundreds of properties previously boarded up,” says Fischer. During the course of its latter two HOPE VI renovations, the Housing Authority also managed to bring in families, mostly from outside the city, to buy homes in the revived developments.
“It’s different in Chester housing than the way things were before, things are a whole lot better,” says Helen Whittington, who lives in Edgemont apartments, a public housing complex for seniors. She’s the president of the tenants’ council representing the Edgemont, Gateway and Madison apartments. “I’m happy where we are. But there’s not enough good housing in Chester for people, and there are some [landlords] who don’t want to clean it up, who don’t want to make it look nice.” There was a stretch where Whittington was homeless and she had to live with her sister in a house with a flooded, mosquito-infested basement. They asked the landlord to clean it up repeatedly, but their requests were ignored and they had to move. “Now I don’t have a problem with getting things fixed in my apartment. All I have to do is report it.” (Fischer says that CHA’s response time is always 30 days or less and that it used to be faster when they had more staff.)
In an age when innovation and entrepreneurship are the buzzwords that get cities’ attention, it’s easy to overlook the power of well-run legacy public agencies like housing authorities. Yet in Chester, no one developer has done as much to improve the city as the CHA has. Higher-profile projects such as PPL Park, the soccer stadium for the Philadelphia Union (supported by $77 million in public subsidies), that was supposed to “change the face of Chester forever,” in the words of then-governor Ed Rendell, have done far less for the city’s residents.
Reha London is a rare landlord who chose to move to Chester to be closer to her responsibilities. In the 1980s she worked as a dance therapist in Havertown, but began dabbling in small-scale real estate with a property she rehabbed and began renting out in Atlantic City. In 1986 she bought her first house in Chester and, then, three years later, quit her job to concentrate entirely on her houses. In 1997, London moved to Chester. She quickly got involved trying to organize the local property management industry, which she deemed to be in crisis.
“I saw the need for an organized association because I saw at that time that the Housing Authority was a wreck, and I saw irresponsible people in the rental business,” says London, who is the head of the Chester Netters, a wing of Delco Property Investors, which she also founded. “I saw tenants abusing landlords and landlords abusing tenants. I realized we really had to come together and start educating both sides of the aisle and make this business truly professional.”
There are 40 members of the Chester Netters and the group meets quarterly. The purpose of the organization is to educate landlords and investors in the complexities of the Chester housing market and to provide a forum for discussion of their common problems and opportunities in an informal setting. They open each meeting with a roundtable discussion; then some tips of the trade are offered, and a speaker wraps things up. Guests range from local political figures and law enforcement commanders to representatives of the Fair Housing Council. “We want to make sure our landlords and investors are well informed about what their responsibilities are,” London says.
But she says the key will be a more active government response to bad actors in the city.
“We have a number of property owners who come in and do business and go back to where they live and don’t give any new thought to their investment or the community — the only agency that can get that under control is government,” London said. “Government has to hold these peoples’ feet to the fire. We need more housing inspectors. We’ve just got one man to cover the whole city.”
But public resources are scarce and new inspectors and new units cost money Chester doesn’t have. The Housing Authority, despite its recent successes, is only likely to see its resources continue to shrink. The sequester alone cost the agency $260,114 annually, leaving a sizable hole in the $6.6 million budget; the agency has 50 percent fewer staff than it did in 2005. At the state level, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett cut programs for rehabilitating housing in older cities from $36 million to $10 million. The city itself has operated under Act 47, the state program for cities in chronic fiscal trouble, since 1995. There have been small revenue infusions from the Harrah’s casino installed on the waterfront, but Chester’s ability to expand services is nonexistent.
Cities like Chester are, after all, the reason government got involved in the housing market in the first place. “In most cities at most times, public housing provides a better alternative than private-sector housing in poor neighborhoods,” writes Edward Goetz in New Deal Ruins: Race, Economic Justice, and Public Policy. But federal the government long ago abandoned the idea of building more project-based public housing, and today even its cheaper alternatives, like Section 8 vouchers and low-income housing tax credits, are stunted by Congress.
The housing authority’s waiting lists are likely to remain lengthy for the foreseeable future. Alan Mallach is an urban development expert who has studied Chester for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. He expects little to change there without a major shift in direction from the state or federal government. “Unless some higher level of government is going to come in and say this is an unacceptable way for people to live, Chester is unlikely to change in any meaningful way,” says Mallach. “But the federal government has, for all practical purposes, said they are out of it, good luck, when it comes to these situations. It’s not a pretty picture.”
Evans, for one, agrees. “This Chester is bad up here. They need someone to come up here and help this place,” he said. “They let these buildings get torn down before they’ll put someone in them. Look at all these empty lots … where they ought to put something for people.”
Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.
Jake Blumgart is a contributing writer at Next City. His work also appears regularly in Al Jazeera America, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Pacific Standard.
Paul Gargagliano is a Philadelphia-based freelance photographer. Brooklyn born and bred, he studied photography at Oberlin College. His work ranges from photojournalism with an urban bent, to wedding and event photography with Hazelphoto.com.