From dream to nightmare: Chester woman fighting battle to keep her home on West Eighth Street

January 2, 2013

There can likely be few scenarios that strike deeper into the hearts of homeowners than the possibility they could one day lose everything they had worked for — their own little slice of the American Dream — and for no other reason than the inaction of others.

Such is the case being presented by lifelong Chester resident Diane Robinson, 47, a massage therapist who, until very recently, had achieved that dream at 70 W. Eighth Street.

According to a civil suit filed in the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, Robinson bought her home in 1993, the last unit on a block of row homes in Chester’s Holy City neighborhood.

Though she kept up and improved upon her property for nearly two decades, Robinson claims the two neighboring properties at 72 and 74 W. Eighth St. were not as well cared for and eventually began to impact her home.

“I was getting little leaks and stuff, and everybody said it was my roof,” she said. “I went up and it wasn’t my roof, fixed it, couldn’t find it. I would ask the neighbor if she was having problems and she said no, and it just progressively got worse.”

Robinson said she continued battling the leaks and cracks that appeared around her home, even remodeling her kitchen twice, all the while pleading with the city and others to address the problems at the neighboring properties.

Then, in the summer of 2011, the unthinkable happened: Robinson was forced to abandon her suddenly unlivable home in the wake of a storm that nearly tore the adjoining wall in two and allowed water to come flowing into the house through the wrenched back wall.

Mold has since colonized nearly every surface of her home’s interior — including the woodwork her late father did to the banisters — and Robinson now finds herself homeless.

Among the named defendants in the complaint are the city of Chester and a former neighbor at 72 W. Eighth St., Adele Newsome. CitiFinancial Services Inc., which foreclosed on Newsome in 2008; Gallo Brothers Development LLC, which currently owns 74 W. Eighth St.; and Robinson’s insurance company, Nationwide Property and Casualty Insurance Co., are also named defendants.

Gallo Brothers, Nationwide and CitiFinancial all declined comment. Multiple calls to various city offices and representatives were not returned. Newsome’s attorney also did not return calls for comment.

According to the suit, Robinson had just brought her newborn grandson home from the hospital in July 2011 when a crack running down one of her walls “quickly grew into a chasm.” The back wall of her property also shifted and allowed water to enter the bedrooms where her daughter and grandson slept.

“I was upstairs and my daughter just came running upstairs (and said), ‘Mom, the kitchen wall is falling down,’” said Robinson. “All the drywall and everything started falling off the wall and I went upstairs in the baby’s bedroom where his bed was. It was just misting over top of the baby’s bed.”

Luckily, her grandson was downstairs at the time. Robinson said she called the Chester Fire Department, which inspected the property July 25 and declared her home unlivable.

Robinson now lives with relatives, while her daughter and grandchild are forced to share a couch. Her home is now in such an advanced state of disrepair that firefighters told her to run if she heard a loud noise.

“This is stressing me out,” she said. “It’s really stressful and it’s causing physical problems, too. It’s running my blood pressure up, because, you know, my daughter wants to come home. She’s like, ‘Mom, I want to sleep in a bed,’ and I’m missing my grandson growing up, and it’s all taken a toll on me. I love my family, but it’s nothing like your own.”

According to the suit, 74 W. Eighth St. has been vacant for more than a decade. Robinson said the city took possession of the property in 2004 and intended to demolish it after major flood damage, but instead sold it to a private buyer for $600. The property, which is now missing a large portion of the back wall, has since changed hands three times and is currently the property of Gallo Brothers.

The back wall of 72 W. Eighth St. has likewise completely bowed out and looks as if it could collapse at any moment. Robinson’s home has taken on the uncanny appearance of a bookend holding up the other structures.

Robinson’s attorney, Lance Rogers, said CitiFinancial is also well aware of the condition of the property, but has taken no steps to repair it. He compared the mortgage institution to a slumlord.

“The amount of negligence we saw here, not only on the city’s behalf but also CitiFinancial and also some of the other defendants in this lawsuit, is, in my mind, unprecedented and egregious,” he said. “Here’s a hardworking individual who supports a family, she was chasing the American dream, and through no fault of her own was thrown out of her house suddenly one night without warning and she’s homeless.”

Robinson said the city has been aware of problems at the two neighboring properties for years, and she’s not the only one who has been sounding alarms.

Another homeowner on the block who asked not to be identified said her property has also been affected by the dilapidation at 72 and 74 W. Eighth St., though not nearly to the same extent as Robinson’s home.

The neighbor said she had also gone down much the same road Robinson is on now, with little success.

“I’m just so perturbed about the whole thing,” she said. “I haven’t been able to get insurance on my property for years. It’s been rough, there’s no one to help you out of a situation like this. … There should be somebody you can go to, to help you, but I just don’t know who.”

“It’s not fair for somebody to have to live like this,” said Pastor Calvin Williams, a neighborhood committeeman who said he has been raising the issue with city council for months.

Williams said he was told the city cannot simply tear down the houses. Though both houses have been condemned, Williams said the city contends it still must go through a court process with the owners of the properties before any action can be taken.

“As they explained it to me, if they tear down (74) and it in anyway damages (72), then they have to pay them for the house,” he said. “That’s the whole catch to this. The Gallo Brothers don’t want to give in.”

Williams said electric service to the buildings was recently shut off and there had been boards put up over the cellars at one point, but those have since been knocked aside.

“We have a large number of children in this neighborhood,” said Williams. “That’s my greatest fear, that one of the children will go in there and they’re going to be lost, and we’re going to be looking for this child and they’re going to be hurt in this house. And then I want the Gallo Brothers or whoever the other owner is to explain this to this community.”

Robinson is also seeking an injunction against Nationwide, which she claims wrongly denied her claim and offered only $1,332 in coverage for damages to her home.

According to the suit, Robinson notified her insurer of the continuing problems at 72 W. Eighth St. and filed a claim for damages in May 2011. According to the suit, Nationwide initially denied the claim, finding the damage was the result of “settlement and deterioration and rust,” which was excluded from her policy.

Robinson said she filed a second claim after her home became unlivable. Nationwide agreed to put her up in a hotel and sent an engineer to inspect the property, according to the suit.

But the insurer offered only partial coverage and immediately terminated the alternative living arrangements at the hotel, according to the suit.

Robinson claims Nationwide overlooked the fact that the damage was the result of the neighboring properties.

She said the insurer had also sent her a letter threatening to terminate her coverage if she does not remedy the issues at her home, a move the suit calls “unconscionable.”

Robinson has asked the court to bar Nationwide from canceling her policy and declare the insurer contractually bound to reimburse her for covered damages.

“We’re certainly asking for punitive damages,” said Rogers. “We need to make Miss Robinson whole.”

By Alex Rose
arose@delcotimes.com