Philadelphia’s Landlord Tenant Court is typically a woefully boring place. Landlords sue tenants over back rent. Tenants sue landlords over leaky roofs. And so it goes, day in and day out within the dreary confines of the Municipal Court building at 34 South 11th Street. But once in a while, there’s a little bit of excitement.
Developers Matthew and Michael Pestronk a.k.a. The Post Brothers, who gained prominence in Philadelphia over the summer thanks to their dramatic battles with some of the city’s unions, filed a complaint in Landlord Tenant Court against Marissa Damato and her husband, who have lived in the brothers’ Rittenhouse Hill high-rise in West Mount Airy since August.
In the complaint, the brothers cite not back rent as the cause for eviction but “slander” and “interfering with the landlord’s business.” Two attorneys I spoke with had never heard of such a suit being filed in Landlord Tenant Court. One called it “bizarre.”
In a letter dated November 15th, Post Brothers attorney Nancy Wasser sent a letter to the couple stating:
You are hereby notified to vacate the above leased premises immediately as you are interfering with the landlord’s business, slandering them and assassinating their character. You have caused them to lose potential renters because of your obnoxious conduct. You have continued this despite polite requests to stop.
The suit was first brought to my attention by defendant Damato, a 33-year-old mom, who lives on the 8th floor of Rittenhouse Hill. Damato had originally contacted me back in October, well before the suit was filed, complaining that the Pestronks were “slumlords” and citing a long list of problems with her new home, including, among other things, malfunctioning elevators, frequent water outages, rodents, improperly sealed windows, and poor customer service from Rittenhouse Hill’s staff.
Once Damato found out about the lawsuit, she contacted me again and pleaded with me to visit the property, and so I did earlier this week. Rittenhouse Hill is very much a work-in-progress development, a fact Damato knew when she signed the lease and moved in with her family. Outside, there are large construction vehicles, piles of dirt, and workmen everywhere. Inside, depending on where you are in the building, there may be massive tangles of electric wires above your head, large rodent traps, or industrial extension cords stretching across common hallways.
During my visit, an elevator malfunctioned twice. Damato says that she and her husband have been stuck inside on separate occasions and that her children don’t like to ride it. A door just down the hall from Damato’s apartment was wide open, revealing an under-renovation unit containing piles of construction debris and wires jutting from the walls. “I have kids,” she says. “What if they wander in and get hurt?”
Damato (pictured, above, inside the malfunctioning elevator nearest her apartment) has complained—and loudly—on numerous occasions about conditions at the property, and other residents have voiced concerns as well, leading to the recent dismissal of the property manager, maintenance coordinator and assistant manager. But Damato is still complaining, and now management wants her out.
“The Post Brothers set up that website about union bullying,” says Damato, referring to PhillyBullying.com. “And yet here they are bullying me.”
I reached out to company president Matt Pestronk to try to learn more about the suit. “Why are you even writing about this?” he asked. “Your magazine just published a glowing story about us and the good work that we’re doing. We’re fighting the most noble fight there is. Do you think we’re gonna go out of our way to screw tenants?” He declined to comment on the case, other than to characterize the defendants as “horrible people.”
Matt’s brother, company CEO Michael Pestronk, was more forthcoming as to his reasoning for the suit. “She hangs out in the elevators and tells prospects, ‘Don’t live here—the place is falling apart’,” he claims. And he says that Damato has penned scathing online reviews of the property, anonymously, of course. I asked him if he had any evidence that Damato was the author. “It’s just obviously her,” he replied.
For her part, Damato denies writing anything online about the building and says that she’s considering turning the tables on the brothers and suing them for slander, among other things. “I moved here to chill out and enjoy the beautiful treetop views,” she says. “But instead, I have to deal with this crap.”