"I cried more than I've cried ever in my life about this."
Action News Reporter: Nydia Han
Story Producer: Heather Grubola
Residential development is supposed to revitalize communities. But in a growing number of cases, there is a dangerous downside.
People tell the Troubleshooters demolition and construction of adjacent properties are destroying their existing row homes.
"I cried more than I've cried ever in my life about this," said Sara Cohen.
Philadelphia inspectors said the Cohen's home in South Philadelphia could collapse because demolition on the house next door "undermined the stability" of the foundation.
"The structural engineer said it's not safe for you to be here. So I ran home from work, we packed up a car full of stuff, and left," she said.
That was five months ago.
Since then, the Cohens haven't been able to get back inside long enough to even retrieve the rest of their belongings.
"Our clothes, our knickknacks, our kitchenware, our memories," said Alex Cohen. "It's difficult not to be in despair about it. This is a constant source of anxiety and stress and sadness on our family."
Especially for Alex, who is legally blind.
"Being in a completely new situation, first at the hotel and then at this rental property, is completely discombobulating," he said.
"When we lived in this house, when we first lived here, Alex could see. He didn't use a cane. And progressively his vision got worse but he maneuvers around this house without a problem because it's the same layout. It's the same setup," said Sara.
"It's been miserable," said Alex. "It's making me feel disabled. And I don't like to feel that way."
The Cohens are suing Jason Cutaiar and Made Construction, LLC.
"This builder completely ignored and rejected all rules requiring proper demolition in this city and endangered this family," said Attorney Jennifer Horn.
The Cohens are also suing USAA, their insurance company, which has denied their claims for repairs, stating the damage was caused by a different issue that isn't covered.
"We are urging the insurance company, the builders and all defendants to do everything possible so that the family can reenter the home and that the home can be remediated," said Horn.
The City has issued a stop-work order on the home next door, saying "the contractor deviated from safety requirements."
Cutaiar blames the subcontractor in a lawsuit saying it is at fault for failing to support the wall and for rupturing a water pipe.
"This is outrageous. And unfortunately, it's not an exception, we're seeing it over and over throughout the city," said Horn.
Blocks away in Center City near Rittenhouse, Michele and Robert Cimillo said they're afraid their home could collapse, too.
"I can't sleep. I can't sleep at night. It's scary," said Michele Cimillo.
They're also suing the builder working on the house next door alleging it took "no precautions during demolition to protect the party wall." The Cimillos have also filed a lawsuit against their insurance company, Liberty Mutual.
"Our house will 100% crumble. 100% crumble," she said. "This is extremely dangerous."
In this case, contrary to Cimillo's allegation, the city said the demolition did not cause the damage to the party wall but revealed it.
"It's a disgrace," she said.
Either way, work cannot continue until both owners develop a plan to make the properties safe.
Ninety-four-year-old Kovena Klenk's home collapsed in Fishtown back in February 2019.
"My brother had to pull out the front door and my sister and the caretaker were able to get my mother out of the house," said her son, Jim Klenk.
The city said improper excavation next door led to cracks in the homes' shared foundation and it has revoked the license of Q Construction.
"I'm a community activist," said Venise Whitaker.
Whitaker and her group, Riverwards L&I Coalition, offer some hope for homeowners.
"Our organization is trying to simultaneously educate and help people navigate these situations," said Drew Miller.
It's also trying to protect future neighbors by working with Philadelphia Licenses and Inspections and by supporting a collection of bills introduced in the Pennsylvania House, which includes an Adjacent Neighbor's Bill of Rights.
It would effectively force developers to contact adjacent homeowners before demolition or construction and require the use of protective measures like vibration monitors and crack gauges through a license or party wall agreement.
"We do need the people who are getting impacted the most to have a say because they're the ones who have to live through it," said Whitaker.
And starting January 1, 2023, the city of Philadelphia will require excavation licenses and inspections of adjoining properties before construction can begin.
"Unfortunately, these requirements come too late for the Cimillos.
"It's disgusting. It's just not okay," she said.
Too late for the Cohens, too.
"This is the hardest thing I've ever gone through. We've had family deaths, my kids were born premature, there's all these things that we've endured and this is by far the hardest," Sara said. "I just don't even know when it's going to end... I don't feel like I can just keep moving forward."
USAA and Liberty Mutual said they cannot comment on pending litigation and the builders being sued have denied all claims against them.
Action News Troubleshooter Nydia Han brings you an extended
version of our special report, "Nightmare Next Door."
Pictured: Alex and Sara Cohen
Pictured: Michele Cimillo
Drexel University professor Rachel Schade explains what to do if major construction is happening near your home.
Documents: Lawsuits and responses in the Cohen case
Documents: Lawsuits and responses in the Cimillo case
Attorney Statement for RLDL 20th Street LLC
There is substantial evidence in the form of videos, still photos, sworn testimony and sealed engineering reports to establish that no damage was caused to the Cimillo home by the demolition next door. The evidence shows that the shifting of all four walls, on the Cimillo home, is a long-standing condition that occurred over many years.
The South wall of the Cimillo home is unsafe and its condition has nothing to do with the work my client did on the North side. Likewise, the defects in the front and rear wall pre-date my client's work.
In fact, the Cimillo family installed bracing, jacks and beams in their basement shortly after the purchase of their home to arrest the shifting conditions, years prior to my client's activity next door.
The Cimillo's have patched cracking plaster and buckling walls over the years and were in the process of doing so at the time my client's demolition began.
My client, the property owner, hired an experienced licensed demolition contractor who obtained all necessary permits from L & I and notified the Cimillo's before beginning any demolition. My client was not aware of the unsafe conditions at the Cimillo home until demolition exposed the North wall and revealed the unsafe conditions. My client's contractor immediately notified the City and the Cimillos of the unsafe conditions. All work was immediately stopped. It is beyond dispute that the Cimillo home requires urgent repair.
The Cimillo home is unsafe, in imminent danger of collapse, and has been in that condition for many years. They risk a catastrophe by staying in the house.
My client is very sympathetic to the problems the Cimillos are having but, we reject, entirely, the suggestion that the demolition caused any damage to the Cimillo home.
My client's work is stalled until a solution to the structural problems at the Cimillo home is found.
Philadelphia Licenses and Inspections Regarding Cimillo Home:
After an investigation L&I determined that the damaged party wall shared by 418 S 20th and 420 S 20th was revealed, not caused, by demolition work at 418 S 20th.
If L&I had found that the demolition contractor violated the Philadelphia Building Code in the course of the demolition, the Department would have issued Notices of Violation to the contractor. That is not what happened here.
Engineers evaluating 420 S 20th have discovered that there are also significant structural problems with the exterior walls of the property. L&I has directed the owners of both properties to consult with structural engineers to develop a plan to make the properties safe through demolition or other means.
Philadelphia Licenses and Inspections Regarding Cohen home:
It is not safe for them to live in their house. The responsible parties owe them compensation for their losses.
Permit to demo does not automatically confer permit to dig. However in demolition process basement foundation walls are exposed, including party wall between row houses.
They also had a new construction permit, which did allow them to underpin (a method of shoring up and stabilizing) the party wall and adjacent foundation to help provide the support for the new building. Some digging is required to accomplish this. Contractor undermined stability of 1714 foundation wall. L&I issued Stop Work Order (see below for more information).
Successful underpinning must be done in very technical and deliberate way. Applicant must demonstrate that they are prepared to do the work correctly.
*Applicant for permit allowing underpinning must submit detailed plans showing how underpinning will be done and in what sequence.
*The plans need to be done and sealed by a state-licensed professional engineer. (PE seal is essentially the engineer saying "I did these plans according to principles for sound engineering and I stand by them.")
*A special inspection agency approved to oversee underpinning work must be hired to supervise the work.
*The "special inspector" must be an engineer and must be onsite throughout process.
*When it came down to doing the work, however, contractor deviated from safety requirements.
L&I issued Stop Work Order in March 2021. SWO remains in place. Will not be removed until the damage is addressed and the properties are made safe.
*This requires a "make safe" permit - application must include documentation of how this work will be accomplished and supervised.
*1712 applied for make safe permit. L&I asked for additional required information on August 25, 2021. Applicant failed to provide the relevant information and therefore L&I closed application.
The contractor is under investigation by L&I's Audits and Investigations Unit (AIU). AIU has the authority to issue license suspensions and, in the most severe cases, license revocations.
Riverwards L+I Coalition
L&I List of Suspended Contractors
Residential Construction Protection Package
Philadelphia Law 2023
Adjacent Neighbor's Bill of Rights
Action News report on Fishtown home collapse on February 11, 2019.
Pictured: Alex and Sara Cohen
Action News report on Fishtown home collapse on February 11, 2019.
Digital Layout: Bruce Alderfer
Horn Williamson, LLC
Horn Williamson LLC
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