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A group of West Philadelphia, Penn., homeowners whose houses were destroyed in the 1985 firebombing of the MOVE headquarters filed a new lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Wednesday that accuses the city of welching on its promise to repair their poorly built replacement homes. In recent months, the homeowners claim, the city concocted a plan to oust them from their homes by fabricating evidence that there is an imminent danger of deadly carbon monoxide build-ups in the homes. In fact, the suit says, there are no imminent dangers in any of the homes, and the city’s true reason for ousting the owners is that estimates for the costs of the repairs had swelled. Attorneys Daniel A. Rendine and Gerald J. McConeghy of Rendine & McConeghy filed the suit along with sole practitioner Jack M. Bernard on behalf of the owners of 24 of the Osage Avenue and Pine Street homes. Named as defendants in the suit are Mayor John Street and the City of Philadelphia; the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections and its commissioner, Edward J. McLaughlin; and the Redevelopment Authority and its executive director Herbert E. Wetzel. The suit recounts a series of negotiations between the city and the homeowners that followed the May 13, 1985, incident in which city police firebombed the house of the controversial MOVE political organization, located at 6221 Osage Ave. The firebombing caused a conflagration that destroyed 61 homes. At first, the city agreed to rebuild all the homes and to be responsible for 10 years for all maintenance and repairs. But after the homes were built, the suit says, the owners made numerous complaints to the city about the poor quality of the construction, including building code violations; license and inspection code violations; and other structural and cosmetic problems. Between 1986 until 1997, the suit says, the city and the RDA continued to attempt repairs on the homes. But when the 10-year period expired, the suit says, the city’s obligations were far from fulfilled, and many of the homes remained in a sad state of disrepair. In 1997, then-Mayor Edward Rendell hired the Allied Construction Co. to undertake all of the repairs necessary, as outlined in a report from the Army Corps of Engineers. The homeowners say they accepted Rendell’s proposal and agreed to permit Allied to undertake partial demolition, construction and repairs at each of their residences. But sometime before April 2000, while Allied was in the midst of construction repairs, and while most or all of the homes were in various states of disrepair and partially completed construction, the suit says, Allied notified the city and RDA that the cost of the repairs was likely to exceed the cost estimates originally included in the contract. A new inventory of the homes was conducted, the suit says, in which L&I and the Army Corps of Engineers outlined the needs for each home. The new report concluded that many repairs were necessary, including retrofitting of the gas-fired heater and hot water exhaust system. But the report specifically stated that none of the homes was in any imminent danger, the suit says. When Mayor Street learned of the additional costs for new repairs, the suit says, he and Wetzel directed that no further repairs be made; that all construction discontinue immediately; and that the residences be left in their existing state of partial completion. At the time, the suit says, the houses “were in a state of disrepair, including: unfinished construction of the front facade, the front storm security type doors had been removed and placed in storage, garage doors had been removed and replaced with temporary covers, and there were numerous other partially completed construction projects.” Many of the homes also had interior walls cut open due to the “invasive testing” by the Army Corps of Engineers. The suit alleges that the city and RDA conspired to avoid their obligations by ousting the homeowners from their homes “by force, extortion, coercion, and by flagrant abuses of defendants’ police power and other governmental powers.” On July 21, 2000, the suit says, the homeowners were told to report to City Hall for a discussion of a resolution of the home repair problems. As they arrived, the suit says, each was presented with letters from Street and McLaughlin, which notified them that their homes were “imminently dangerous, because of a seriously dangerous carbon monoxide problem.” The letters said each owner was required to enter into an agreement with the city for the transfer of their property ownerships within 10 days and that all were legally compelled to vacate their homes by Sept. 6, 2000. The suit alleges the letters’ claims of “imminently dangerous conditions” and unacceptable build-up of carbon monoxide were “false claims, which all defendants knew to be baseless.” The claims were used, the suit says, “as a pretext to terrorize plaintiffs into vacating their property and transferring ownership, all for the purpose of defendants evading their contractual and legal responsibilities to repair and maintain plaintiffs’ residences.” To justify their “imminently dangerous” notices, the suit alleges, Street and McLaughlin conspired with employees and representatives of the Philadelphia Gas Works and attempted to disconnect the gas service to plaintiffs’ residences. It also alleges that the city continued to “terrorize, mislead and threaten” residents by telling them that they had to accept a buy-out of their property by Sept. 6, 2000, or their homes would be demolished, and they would be paid a substantially lower amount. Since July 21, the suit says, the city has purchased or obtained title to about 30 of the Osage Avenue and Pine Street homes. The case, Mattie Coles v. John F. Street, has been assigned to U.S. District Judge J. Curtis Joyner.

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