Unpaid utility bills may close ‘unfit’ senior housing complex in West Philly

Gas service at Brith Sholom House may be shut off this month. It’s just the latest threat to tenants still living at the 12-story complex.

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Stanley Elam

Stanley Elam is a resident of the Brith Sholom House senior housing apartment building in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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When Jennifer Schumann moved her mother to Brith Sholom House in Wynnefield Heights, she felt relieved. Her mom’s old apartment had mold and other maintenance issues. The place also wasn’t ideal for a senior with mobility issues.

“I just thought that… this was going to be better,” said Schumann.

Nearly two years later, the real estate agent is desperately looking for a new place for her 72-year-old mom. She recently learned from property management that the city may deem Brith Sholom “uninhabitable” this month if gas service is shut off because of “past due bills.”

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The Brith Sholom House apartment building
The Brith Sholom House apartment building in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A long list of open code violations at the 360-unit tower had already sent Schumann searching. The possibility of a shutoff has only ramped up her efforts.

“I kind of am expanding my search now to even go out as far as Hershey to get an affordable unit because I’m finding there’s nothing even remotely near the city,” said Schumann.

At Brith Sholom, utilities are included with the rent. According to a notice from April 23, Philadelphia Gas Works is requiring more than $96,000 to continue service. The same notice states that a shutoff may happen May 23.

The building is also scheduled to be sold at a sheriff’s sale on June 4.

an outdoor sign for the Brith Sholom House
The Brith Sholom House apartment building in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

If Brith Sholom closes, more than 150 seniors with low income would be displaced amid an affordable housing crisis. Philadelphia’s supply of affordable senior housing is particularly limited.

“The residents who are still there are there because they believe that the building can return to the way it used to be and that they deserve livable conditions,” said attorney Madison Gray, a fellow at the Public Interest Law Center, which is representing the building’s tenant council.

In November, the 12-story building was placed in receivership after a judge dismissed a bankruptcy petition filed by corporate owner Brith Sholom Winit LP. The receiver, Stockton Real Estate Advisors, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Aaron Puretz, president of Apex Equity Group, a holding company tied to Brith Sholom Winit LP, also did not respond to requests for comment.

A notice to tenants dated April 15 states that “numerous amounts of vacancies and current monthly income is not sufficient to handle the cost of repairs and high utility costs.”

“It is apparent our efforts to revitalize Brith Sholom House are failing,” reads the next line of the notice.

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It’s unclear who sent the notice.

Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections has deemed Brith Sholom “unfit for human occupancy” and is fighting to make the building safe for tenants, many of whom are still paying rent.

SREA has made some progress on that front, but there are still about 100 serious code violations, according to city records. They include issues with smoke alarms, fire extinguishers and fire resistance. There are also electrical and plumbing hazards.

A spokesperson for L&I said the department cannot comment on the conditions at Brith Sholom because of active litigation.

Stanley Elam and his wife moved to Brith Sholom about three years ago. But until March, water leaked into their apartment whenever it rained. The couple also dealt with roaches and mice.

Stanley Elam sits outside
Resident Stanley Elam outside of the Brith Sholom House senior housing apartment building in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

In addition to patching the ceiling, the Vietnam War veteran said his apartment has new floors. Management also installed a new stove. To Elam, the place is now “livable” and he’d prefer to stay if he can, even though management has discontinued all activities and locked up the auditorium, where Elam and others met for Bible study twice a week.

“I can’t afford to really move,” said Elam, 75.

Like most of his neighbors, he and his wife live on a fixed income.

His wife gets Social Security. Elam has a service-connected disability related to injuries he sustained in Vietnam and receives payments from the federal government as a result. He was making some extra money driving for Uber but had to stop in January because of health problems that make it hard for him to sit for too long.

Elam said he constantly worries about his safety at Brith Sholom, but is putting “my faith in the Lord” as he explores other places to live — and tries to remain optimistic.

“I’m holding onto some hope that the issues with the building might be settled,” said Elam.

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