Dozens of Elkins Park residents have been displaced for two weeks now, with some saying they are on the verge of homelessness since the Regina Rose Apartments were evacuated due to unsafe building conditions.
With their resources running thin and their families split apart, tenants of the Stahr Road apartments say they have been calling for help — but not getting much response.
Renisha Clayborn had been living in the apartment complex with her daughter for a little over a year. Now, she says, her world has come crashing down as she ricochets from one place to another.
“I literally had to send my daughter to California to go to my family, just so she’s not bouncing around,” Clayborn said. She added that this was supposed to be a summer of fun for her daughter before her senior year of high school — instead, it included two brief stays at hotels.
How Clayborn’s daughter ended up nearly 3,000 miles away is not simply a story of unfortunate events.
First, there were seven leaking gas meters. They needed to be addressed.
A troubling call from an on-site PECO supervisor on Friday, June 25, prompted Cheltenham Township Fire Marshal Scott Lynch to leave his post and head over to Regina Rose Apartments. In an interview with WHYY News this week, Lynch said he and the PECO supervisor went into the basement and elevated the number of leaking gas meters to 11. They quickly shut off the gas.
Without gas, there is no hot water. No hot water equates to an “unsanitary condition,” Lynch said, which means residents could no longer occupy the building. The township’s property maintenance department and police were called as they began to notify residents of their predicament.
Lynch said he went back to the basement to speak with the PECO worker about next steps — that’s when he looked up. Floor joists are supposed to be pocketed into the wall and into an I-beam. Several floor joists weren’t even touching the I-beam. A building inspector was immediately summoned.
“We needed to do something immediately. So it was at that point we deemed the structure unsafe, and we went into the evacuation,” Lynch said.
The Regina Rose has 14 units and about 30 occupants. They were transported to the Elkins Park firehouse, where they met with the Red Cross. Residents were given $500 for hotel stays.
The next day, the landlord and owner of the building, Dan Waisbord, hired someone to handle on-site maintenance of the property. That person met with the township’s building inspector to formulate a plan to fix the structural damage. They made some temporary fixes that allowed residents to return to get their belongings.
The steel needed to make the repairs has been ordered, but it will take a couple of weeks to arrive — and the fixes will take a couple of weeks more after that.
Though township officials have talked to all the residents, Waisbord reportedly has been elusive. It wasn’t until June 30 that the township was able to get in touch with him. The Cheltenham property maintenance department and Lynch had a phone call with Waisbord in which they discussed the severity of the problems. They also reminded him of his responsibilities under the building code.
“His exact words to Cheltenham Township were, ‘I’m not going to lose my building. I’m not helping the tenants.’ And basically, he told us to have a nice day — in so many words,” Lynch said.
“Where we stand right now is the people that don’t have any place to go are either going to end up in a shelter or in their car,” Lynch said.
To add insult to injury, the maintenance worker hired by the building’s owner threw away property of the residents that was stored in the basement.
“The maintenance man took it upon himself to get a trailer … and just take [the property] away … The maintenance man and I had a discussion. And he told me, he understood my instructions where the storage can be here. And he also told me that he understood that I did not tell him to take it to the trash recycling or to the trash dump. He took that upon himself to do that,” Lynch said.
The building owner should not have allowed for basement storage in the first place because it was not done to code, according to Lynch.
The residents say they plan to sue Waisbord. Lynch said their landlord has either changed phone numbers or had his phone shut off, though some residents said they have been able to talk with him sparingly over the phone and through texts.
WHYY News contacted Waisbord for comment on Friday. His only words prior to hanging up were, “Sir, you can run whatever you want. You’re a state-sponsored newspaper. Thank you.”
Keriann Meyers, who had been living at the apartments with her fiance and baby, seemed unsurprised by reports of her landlord’s behavior toward township officials.
“He’s not a reliable person. There’s been situations where, like, the washer is broken, the dryer is broken, it takes weeks to get fixed,” Meyers said.
While her fiance continues to work in Philadelphia, Meyers said she and the baby are now staying with her parents. Most people aren’t that lucky, she added.
Some of the Regina Rose tenants believe that their landlord only cares for two things: his mortgage and getting the building up to code. They said that as far as they know, they are an afterthought.
“We were basically on our own because we were informed that due to the insurance on the building, that because this is neglect on his part, he’s supposed to fund our housing until we’re able to move back in. His insurance will cover that — he doesn’t want to file a claim,” said Clayborn, who is now living with her boyfriend.
Hopping between hotels and motels has been a difficult feat. Some of the displaced residents say they are digging deeper into their pockets for cash they don’t have.
Michelle Santos has been a resident at Regina Rose Apartments since 2017. She said the temporary displacement, initially conveyed to her as a weekend stay, has since grown into a financial nightmare. She said she is currently paying $85 a night at a hotel, which puts her in a hard place financially.
“I can’t afford to pay $2,000 a month at an Extended Stay or Holiday Inn or Comfort Inn … now I’m behind in my car payments, and I have other bills to pay, and all these apartment complexes want two, three months’ security,” Santos said.
Residents interviewed by WHYY News said they are still formulating a plan.
“We want to try to get a lawyer together as a whole, so we don’t have like 12 to 14 different cases. So we can file a civil suit just to get money back that we paid out, because at this point, we’re coming out of our pockets for everything, like we don’t have help. Resources are even next to none,” Clayborn said.
The residents have set up a group chat where they share resources to get help. Meyers has also started a GoFundMe page for Regina Rose tenants.
In a statement to WHYY News, Cheltenham Township Commissioner Mitchell Zygmund-Felt, who met with the residents on Monday, said he is in the process of reaching out to organizations that he thinks could help.
“I am hoping the prospects of these residents potentially being homeless, fiscally challenged and their increasing level of desperation will both resonate and motivate response with those I plan to contact,” Zygmund-Felt said.
State Rep. Napoleon Nelson, who represents the area, was also present during the meeting on Monday. In an interview, Nelson said he is putting out a call to the region’s landlords to see who could take the displaced residents in.
“I have little over a dozen residents, and constituents in my community, neighbors of mine, who are, right now, certainly housing-insecure. And my job, my heart, my charge is to figure out what in the world this office can do to help the residents,” Nelson said, adding that he has had conversations with most if not all the residents over the past week.
“I mean, the stories are heartbreaking, because at best, I’m speaking with residents who are relatively resourced but never thought they would be in a situation where they don’t currently have a home. And they’re having a really hard time finding apartments because we don’t have enough available housing,” he said. “But on the flip side, I’m speaking with, you know, there are some residents who are sick, I’ve got a couple seniors, one would be considered on hospice care.”
He categorized the situation as an “absolute failing of the system as a whole.”
“For the wealthiest county in a fairly well-to-do state, I hate to keep coming back to it but … to think that we’ve got $2.5 billion that we’re putting in a rainy day fund and our transitional housing requires that you’d be on the street for a couple days before we can find the homeless shelter… I’m new to Harrisburg and maybe it’s not the place for me, because I don’t know what the heck we’re doing there,” Nelson said.
With the quick return to the Regina Rose Apartments now a pipe dream, the financial burden on residents is heavy.
“Where’s the help?” Clayborn asked.
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