Poet laureate takes aim at poor rental conditions in York City


York City's poet laureate cannot sleep at night.

About a year ago, Christine Lincoln moved from Manchester Township into the city she'd agreed to inspire with her words.

Soon, she realized words would not be enough.

Lincoln can remember the moment her eyes opened to the housing crisis around her, a crisis that has since stolen her ability to sleep peacefully. She was walking home from Martin Library when a scene caught her eye on Pine Street.

"I saw two kids playing in an alley," Lincoln said. "And they were playing with trash."

That day, Lincoln started working on a poem about her observations of rental housing in York — the crumbling walls, the leaking ceilings, the roach and bedbug infestations, the mold.

She's still working on it.

A broad spectrum: There aren't many people who know York City's rental properties better than Rick Merck.

Merck has served in some capacity as a city housing inspector since 2002, the year he first took on the role of city building official.

These days, Merck is a managing partner of Qdot Engineering — the company city officials hired to conduct all tenant-occupied inspections. Until this year, rental inspections had been the purview of the city's fire department.

So, are rental housing conditions as deplorable in York City as some say? It's not an easy question to answer, Merck said.

"Like anything else, I believe we have a very broad line between the worst and the best. I can take you into some places that you would look and say, 'Oh my goodness, I cannot believe this place is here. This is gorgeous,'" Merck said.

And then there are the places that keep Lincoln up at night, and Merck said those places exist as well.

That's why, Merck said, he and another Qdot employee approached Lincoln after she brought her concerns about rental housing to the York City Council last week.

"If you find these places, and we've yet to be there, give us a call and we're happy to intervene," Merck said.

"Our intent is to make things better. But we have everything from the top to the bottom and everything in between."

Fighting for answers: LeAshia Banks, a 33-year-old mother of five, would argue her apartment on Smyser Street is on the bottom end of that best-to-worst spectrum.

She's lived there 14 months, paying $650 a month. And she'd like someone to fix the ceiling that collapsed into her living room about a week ago.

Since she and her kids moved in, Banks said, she's dealt with maintenance issues and an unresponsive landlord. She'd like to move, but finding a decent place she can afford is a challenge.

"It's just been hell," she said.

Andrew Miller did not hesitate to label the owner of his rental unit on South Pine Street a slumlord.

Miller said he and his wife moved into their apartment a week ago. They agreed to pay $350 a month.

There is no running water, he said.

"This is borderline uninhabitable. We have nowhere else to go right now. The shelters are all full," Miller said.

Jennifer Schlosser shares a studio apartment with her 6-year-old son on South Albemarle Street. Her monthly rent is $525.

Since she moved in 18 months ago, Schlosser has been struggling to understand why her monthly electric bill is so high — reaching $600 over the winter.

"For it to be that high, people are looking at me like I'm nuts," she said.

Schlosser said she's convinced the building's electrical system is the problem, but her landlord has told her to contact the electric company. The company tells her it's the landlord's problem.

Meanwhile, she's fallen behind on payments. Her electricity was cut off July 13.

Roxy Harvey has been trying to recover financially since losing her job at the height of the recession.

Since then, she's lived in three apartments owned by the same property-management company — two in York City and one in West York.

Each attempt at bettering her situation with a move has proved unsuccessful. Harvey listed the rental nightmares she's endured — no heat in the winter, a collapsed roof at the height of a storm, verbal abuse from property managers, raw sewage seeping into the basement and, finally, the latest.

Despite always paying her rent on time, Harvey said she was recently served with an eviction notice after one late payment — even though she'd agreed to pay a late fee.

The 48-year-old woman holds a doctoraral degree in educational leadership. She intends to fight.

But, she said, she understands now why so many similar stories fly under the radar.

"Because so many people are afraid to speak up, then this type of behavior becomes prominent," Harvey said. "I know how to advocate for myself, but I'm being told, 'You can't do that. Who do you think you are?'"