Last Wednesday, the Lancaster City Housing Department performed coordinated inspections of 10 properties owned by Dwain S. London Sr. Inspectors found eight of those properties to be operating as illegal boarding houses in which 10 or more individuals lived in what were registered — if at all — as single-family units.
The violations were numerous and included dangerous electrical work, nonworking smoke detectors and raw sewage in basements.
Since I took office in January, our inspectors have uncovered and condemned three other illegal boarding houses operated by London. The first was shut down because of a raw sewage leak. The second home was shut down after a drug raid. The third was reported to the city as residents’ No. 1 complaint on that block. The feature common to all houses was unsafe and unsanitary living conditions.
Then there was the fourth house, which came to our attention after a fire in which Dana Bair Jr. died. While we had already begun to strategize how to end the pattern of abuses, the fire at this South Ann Street property accelerated our action. This house, too, was found to be in a deplorable condition. Our fire marshals reported bottles of urine in rooms (remember, there was only one shared bathroom), overloaded outlets and more.
Some have defended London’s operation as offering a needed lifeline to people who, because of bad credit, criminal records, addiction or mental health issues, cannot afford or obtain housing in Lancaster. Yes, they figure, the conditions at his properties were substandard, but what else could those people do?
This picture is both incomplete and false. According to the tenants we’ve talked to, London was making roughly $500 (or more) a room, with one to five people living in a room, with up to 12 people per house, including children. What did they get for that $500? One padlocked room and no kitchen (which led to overloaded outlets for hot plates, refrigerators, microwaves). One bathroom for 12 people to share that may or may not have been fully functioning.
Where did all the money being collected for the houses go? Clearly not toward the properties.
The idea that we ought to tolerate substandard conditions because of poverty is wrong and harmful. For one, it creates a cycle of poverty that is impossible to break. Since there were no leases, no ability to build credit, people were forever trapped in a system in which they paid in cash and were perpetually at the will of a landlord who showed little concern for his properties or for the people who lived in them.
When you think about poverty that way you create two systems: one that is acceptable for the poor, but not for the affluent — a system that is OK for some neighborhoods, but would never be tolerated in another. You say, “Well, I would never live in that place,” but it’s OK for “them,” because they are disadvantaged. That view doesn’t pass the sniff test of basic morality and certainly cannot be the basis of housing policy.
At the end of the day, this is not about enforcing nitpicky codes for codes’ sake. This is not bureaucratic red tape. London flouted the law — a fact he was well aware of, having been cited previously — and, given the condition of the homes, common decency.
Last Wednesday’s actions have repercussions for many of the major issues we are facing as a city: affordable housing and high poverty rates. But the steep challenges we face cannot be met with inaction. The only option available to us cannot be “doing nothing” until we fix all the systemic problems associated with poverty. We must start somewhere, and focusing on the basic safety and well-being of our most vulnerable citizens, as well as tackling the tremendous drag these types of boarding houses have on the surrounding neighbors, are ways the city under my leadership is taking action to address our neighborhoods. All of our neighborhoods.
Concerns about displacing residents was at the forefront of our minds while planning this action. Since then, Director of Neighborhood Engagement Milzy Carrasco has worked tirelessly to connect residents of these properties to housing and social services. Her efforts were significantly assisted by our faith community and local nonprofits. I can’t thank them enough for stepping up to assist in every way that we’ve asked. But let’s be clear: The city does not bear responsibility for displacing people; that falls squarely on the shoulders of those creating the squalid, illegal conditions we found in those houses.
Last week’s effort was not an isolated incident. We are working on additional ways to strengthen our rental inspection program, inclusive of lead remediation, as well as our ordinances to provide more tools for the city to utilize in combating neglectful landlords. We also have some additional avenues we are pursuing to increase investment in affordable housing.
In the meantime, once you’ve seen the pictures, once a life is lost, there can be no going back. Once a tenant tells his or her story, Pandora’s box is opened. We can either struggle together as a community to deal with these challenges, or we can simply go back to pretending that these issues just affect the individual tenants involved — that they do not affect us because we don’t live in that house or that neighborhood. I, for one, will not abide moving backward.
Danene Sorace, a Democrat, took office as mayor of the City of Lancaster on Jan. 2.