The landlord whom Lancaster’s government took to court this spring over the condition of his properties is getting out of the city’s rental market.
In the past several months, Robert Plank has sold 11 of the 14 properties City Hall listed in its lawsuit against him, according to county records.
While in some cases the new owners are still deciding what to do, they generally told LNP they’re planning to fix up the properties and resell them, most likely to owner-occupants.
That means most if not all the existing tenants will have to relocate.
Many have already done so. Some households are being assisted through the city’s emergency rehousing program, which is managed by the Community Action Partnership of Lancaster County.
“It’s hurting me, but we got to go,” said Virgen Molina, a former Plank tenant at 449 W. King St.
Molina, 63, said she had been there seven years. The property was in bad shape all that time, but when you don’t have money, “you live however you can,” she said.
City records show 449 W. King St. has 18 open property code violations. One unit is condemned.
Paula Saxinger and Michael Chance bought Plank’s former office at 552 W. King St. The two own the adjacent building, home to Rieker Bottle Works.
The new building “needs a complete overhaul,” Saxinger said. She and Chance are still working out what they want to do, but it will probably be a mix of retail and residential, she said.
The city filed suit against Plank, who is in his early nineties, in December, saying it tried repeatedly to get him to fix his properties, to no avail.
Problems included vermin, leaking toilets, unsound floors and ceilings, broken windows, electrical malfunctions and lack of smoke detectors, the city said.
In March, a county judge ruled for the city and appointed Zimmerman, Pfannebecker, Nuffort & Albert, the law firm representing it, as temporary receiver, allowing it to collect rents and arrange for repairs. The firm appointed Signature Property Professionals as property managers.
The prices for the properties Plank has sold to date range from $63,500 to $250,000, and total $1.25 million, records show.
Plank’s daughter, Deborah Haas, told LNP her father wants to sell all his city rentals. He is frustrated and feels persecuted by the city, she said, and she agrees.
“I don’t feel he got a fair shake at all,” Haas said.
Husband and wife Robert La Grassa and Michelle VonNieda own Signature Property. They bought three of Plank’s houses and are rehabbing them.
“We’re very excited to get these properties back on the market in good condition,” VonNieda said.
Mayor Danene Sorace has said consistently the city has an obligation to ensure landlords maintain basic levels of health, safety and sanitation.
“The idea that we ought to tolerate substandard conditions because of poverty is wrong and harmful,” she wrote in LNP last year.
That was shortly after the city took action against another landlord, Dwain London Sr., who was accused both of code violations and of running illegal boarding houses. His case, too, ended up in court.
This year, London arranged for the sale of his rental properties to two local nonprofits, which are renovating them for sale to owner-occupants.
The city understands the concern that displaced tenants may end up worse off, Sorace said. It’s doing what it can to avoid that: That’s why the emergency rehousing program was set up.
But fundamentally, responsibility for displacement “falls squarely on the shoulders” of negligent landlords, she wrote.