Condemned apartment tenants’ struggle highlights wider problem

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – It’s been over two months since a retaining wall collapsed near the Mulberry Street bridge, damaging one of the McFarland apartment buildings and sending a car through the roof of a tire and auto shop.

No one took responsibility for the wall, leaving residents at McFarland in the middle.

That building is now condemned and tenants have to be out by Friday or face eviction. Their fight is highlighting a broader problem throughout the city.

As some of the last residents moved out of the condemned portion Tuesday, questions turned up about what happens next and whether or not they’re going to be able to get any of their money back.

Most of the tenants in the eight-unit building have already moved; Walter Marshall’s daughter plans to be out by the Friday deadline.

“It’s been stressful for her,” he said. “She had to take time off on her job. She doesn’t know what to do.”

His daughter didn’t want to talk to us. “Her concern, not talking on camera, is they’re going to keep her month’s rent,” Marshall said.

It’s a common concern that tenants won’t get back security deposits or July rent they paid before the building was condemned in late June.

“I think that’s their first step; to demand a return of rent that’s been paid,” said Widener University Commonwealth Law School professor Palmer Lockard.

He said tenants in that situation are entitled to some money back: a 1979 state Supreme Court decision, Pugh v. Holmes, ruled that leases contain an “implied warranty of habitability” — basically, a guarantee from the landlord that the apartment is safe.

The court ruled tenants agree to pay rent and landlords agree to keep the property livable.

If an apartment becomes unfit, meaning the landlord breaks his or her obligation under the implied warranty, tenants are allowed to withhold a portion of their rent equal to the level of uninhabitability.

And this situation is “fairly common” in Harrisburg, said Beverly Johnson, program director of the Fair Housing Council of the Capital Region.

Johnson said she encounters a lot of tenants around the city (more than in most of the rest of the state) who are trying to get money back from landlords.

So, for any renters who feel their landlords aren’t holding up their end of the deal, Lockard has one piece of advice: “Document, document, document.”

Make your landlord aware of the problems, he said, by sending a letter by certified mail and keeping a copy for yourself.

Give your landlord time to fix the issues, and only after a reasonable amount of time without remedy should you withhold rent or think about breaking your lease.

Back at the McFarland, the city plans to start fining the company up to a $1,000 a day on Monday if they don’t take action to repair or clean up the collapse.

As for tenants’ money, “You wait and see,” Marshall said. “If not, you’ve got to go to civil court.”

One tenant said he’s considering a class-action lawsuit against the apartments, but that costs money up front and participants probably won’t be reimbursed all of their lawyer fees.

“There are a lot of costs that they’re not going to recover,” Lockard said, “even if they win their lawsuit.”

“It’s likely they’ll have to take time off from work to go to court, and they’re not going to be reimbursed for that,” he added.

A woman who answered the phone at the McFarland declined to comment.

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