First he killed their dreams, then their credit

Nayda Morales of West Kensington was among at least 500 tenants taken to Landlord-Tenant Court by Robert N. Coyle Sr. All the cases were dismissed last month. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Nayda Morales of West Kensington was among at least 500 tenants taken to Landlord-Tenant Court by Robert N. Coyle Sr. All the cases were dismissed last month. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: July 20, 2012

NAYDA MORALES has been forced into a neighborhood on edge, where she worries about the next shooting, the next house to get torched, the next house junkies take as their own.

She lives on a claustrophobic block in West Kensington, across the street from four boarded-up houses, two of them charred.

Potential landlords won't rent to her. Owners refuse to sell to her. For a while, Morales, a mother of three, had to move in with her mom. Her credit has been ruined.

It is all because she rented a decrepit house seven years ago from Robert N. Coyle Sr., a notorious Philadelphia slumlord who stands charged with defrauding banks of $10 million.

Many of the more than 300 homes that Coyle rented out were barely livable. They had broken pipes, gaping holes, buckled walls, shattered windows and no heat. When tenants withheld rent because he refused to make repairs, he took them to Landlord-Tenant Court to slap them with judgments and evict them.

Coyle took at least 500 tenants, including Morales, to court even though he had no valid housing-inspection license, which he was legally required to have to collect rent and/or evict tenants.

Late last month, Municipal Judge Bradley K. Moss issued an order to vacate the judgments against Coyle's tenants and dismiss the cases. Although experts characterize that as a good first step, they say that it doesn't solve the problem because landlords often rely on tenant credit-reporting services that don't update credit or tenant history.

While Coyle awaits trial in federal court, dozens of his former renters are still fighting the "bad-tenant" label he slapped on them, like a noose around their necks. They're trapped in poverty and often unable to take out a loan or obtain a credit card.

"These tenants can't find housing," said Phil Lord, executive director of the Tenant Union Representative Network, a local advocacy group. "They move to substandard housing with exorbitant rents. They're suffering for something they didn't cause."

"Tenants can be followed for years by bad eviction judgments — whether those were based on forged licenses or simply resulted from tenants who stopped paying for the privilege of living in a house that was not maintained and uninhabitable," said Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, who held hearings to deal with the Coyle fallout. "There will never be a solution to bad actors."

Tenant credit-reporting services effectively "blacklist" people if they have an eviction or judgment in their history, or have been sued for nonpayment when they legally withheld rent for lack of repairs, she said.

"It's very hard for tenants to repair or correct these reports since there are many of these companies and they are poorly regulated," Sanchez said.

Experts suggest that tenants get copies of the vacated judgments through Philadelphia Municipal Court and provide them to credit-reporting companies.

The majority of Coyle's homes were in Sanchez's district, where many tenants are poor and not fluent in English.

"Sadly, it is our poorest and most-vulnerable citizens who are targeted by criminals like Bob Coyle," Sanchez said.

"This hurt my credit bad. Real bad," Morales said in Spanish, wiping tiny, glistening beads of sweat from her forehead on a recent afternoon. Her son, Luis DeJesus, translated, empathizing with his mom's struggle.

"I tried to buy a house and couldn't," said Morales, 45, who until getting laid off earlier this year earned $7.50 an hour packing meat at the Dietz & Watson plant in Tacony. She lost her security deposit on the house she rented from Coyle and spent $1,500 to make repairs he didn't. She fixed leaks in the basement, kitchen and bathroom, in addition to the toilet and kitchen sink.

"I put a lot of money into that house and he stole it and never gave it back," she said. "He should pay for what he did and make justice for the people."

Slumlord millionaire

Beginning in 1997, Coyle formed Landvest and at least nine other companies, all operated from a rowhouse office on Allegheny Avenue near Aramingo in Port Richmond. He obtained more than $15 million in bank loans on nearly 300 homes he rented out. As the housing market grew sluggish, he let the vast majority fall into disrepair.

He offered "as-is" homes with lease-purchase agreements. People poured their own money into the houses, believing that they were buying their first home, their slice of the American dream. To others, he offered month-to-month rent.

Disgruntled tenants stormed into Coyle's office and refused to pay rent until he installed or fixed basics. Tenants said they were told to pay or get out. He then routinely took them to court, filing as many as 10 to 15 complaints in a single day.

No one questioned the validity of Coyle's housing-inspection licenses until a former Coyle employee, Joseph Carlin, wrote a letter to court administrators on June 1, 2008, alleging that Coyle had presented thousands of fake licenses to Landlord-Tenant Court.

Judge Moss had his staff pull a few of Coyle's licenses and asked the city's Department of Licenses & Inspections if they were legitimate. In each case, the answer was no, according to a transcript of a court hearing.

About the same time, Coyle stopped paying off his loans. Tenants began receiving notices that their homes were headed for sheriff's sale. Banks filed suit against him and hired agencies to manage his properties, trying to ward off a massive foreclosure storm.

The Daily News chronicled Coyle's crumbling empire in October 2009 as federal authorities expanded the investigation and tenants pegged him the "slumlord millionaire." Attorneys, some of whom work for nonprofit legal agencies, have fought to halt the sheriff's sales and to help some rent-to-own tenants stay in the homes they fixed up.

Four months ago, the feds charged Coyle with defrauding East River Bank and Republic First Bank of more than $10 million by lying to them about property titles and the income he received from his rental houses, the same ones he used as collateral.

Coyle's office manager, John Hall, was charged in August 2010 with creating fraudulent rental licenses used to evict tenants. He pleaded guilty and is scheduled to be sentenced in September.

Coyle is out on bail. His trial is expected to begin in October. His attorney, Jeffrey M. Miller, said he is representing him on the federal indictment, which doesn't focus on how he treated his tenants.

Miller insists that Coyle's background "belies" the argument that he would break promises and swindle tenants.

"He started as a bus driver," said Miller. Coyle then sold water ice in the summer and pizza and hoagies in the winter before he turned to real estate and amassed about 425 properties.

Coyle, Miller said, did not defraud the banks. Instead, the banks wanted Coyle to take out the loans and Coyle told them that he couldn't make loan payments unless they gave him title work. "They said, ‘No Problem.' But they never gave him title work," Miller said. "I'm convinced of Coyle's rendition of this."

But Carlin, the ex-employee, says Coyle is no victim.

"He'd turn people out, one after the other," Carlin said. "He didn't care who it was or if it was Christmas Eve. For him to bleed these people is infuriating. They work hard just to survive."

Broken dream, broken credit

Whenever Maria Caraballo withheld rent from Coyle because he refused to repair a house on Lippincott Street, Coyle had his workers padlock her door.

"I told him I'm not paying rent because he wouldn't fix stuff, but he still padlocked it," Caraballo said in Spanish as her daughter, Mariana, translated.

To do so is against the law.

"You can't do an eviction like that," said Bob Willwerth, a Southampton attorney who represents landlords. "You have to go through the court system."

To avoid homelessness, Caraballo said, she scrounged loans from friends or relatives to pay Coyle. Her husband, Daniel Cruz, who works as a mechanic, tiled the wood-splintered floors and fixed a caved-in ceiling himself.

Coyle "took me to court four times. I got four eviction notices," she said. "I had no way of knowing he had no rental license."

Caraballo, who works at a window factory, tried to buy the Lippincott house from a bank that repossessed it, but was denied, as she was in her attempts to rent other houses. "All because of him," she said.

Her husband ultimately rented a house on Kip Street in West Kensington in his name.

Josephine Keffala, 51, a grandmother of five, said she put her rent money for Coyle's house on Rorer Street in escrow because it had no heat and Coyle wouldn't fix it. Coyle took Keffala, an overnight shift manager at Wawa, to court in 2005.

"To get evicted felt horrible," she said. "No one wanted to give me a place to live. Look at where I moved."

She lives on Custer Street near Clearfield, next to two abandoned houses, one littered with graffiti, on a block of broken bricks and shattered glass.

Keffala is one of the lucky ones; she's preparing to buy a house in the Northeast. "It took seven years of hard work to recover from what he did," she said.

Others whom Coyle took to court remain trapped.

Jannette Rodriguez, 30, a mother of two, works the overnight shift as a nurse's aide at Temple University Hospital. She moved to Hope Street near Cambria, known as "Dope Street" because it's in the heart of an open-air drug bazaar in West Kensington. First, she rented from a man who doesn't check tenant history. Now she and her children live with her dad, a few doors down.

"I want off this block. I can't wait to leave," she said, sitting in the tiny, vinyl-floored living room.

"I hope [Coyle] goes to jail. He really messed me up because I can't move on. And that's all I want — to move on." n

Contact Barbara Laker at 215-854-5933 or lakerb@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @barbaralaker.

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