Morning Headlines: Philadelphia’s War Against Blight Continues

Two days into 2014 we wondered if plans to relieve Philadelphia of abandoned properties would yield significant changes. Now, only a month later, it appears we’re getting an answer: Efforts to alleviate blight plaguing the city are already showing results.

Newsworks reports that according to Liz Hersh, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, home sale prices have increased by about 31%, thus relieving nearby properties from suffering the consequences of living near deteriorating buildings.

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Danger of Imminently Dangerous House Couldn’t Have Been That Imminent

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Check out the photos of 1402 Ellsworth Street, which is the kind of house Philly residents walk by all the time and don’t even notice anymore. It’s just one of so many craptastic buildings that are about to topple over. This one was slapped with an “imminently dangerous” designation in July but court proceedings against the owner didn’t start till a few days ago. With all due respect to understaffing and human fallibility, have we learned nothing from disasters like the fire at Thomas Buck warehouse or the Salvation Army collapse? L&I doesn’t have the funding to demo a building in danger of imminent collapse within 24 hours, as City Controller Alan Butkovitz suggested, but to go months?

The building owner must feel rather invincible. After he testily confronted Philly mag’s Victor Fiorillo, who was taking photos of his “house,” he explained his lack of upkeep by saying he was “just a regular guy” who’s had neighborhood problems.

That regular guy needs to be held accountable, especially if he’s so easily found. And L&I needs to get the funding it requires to make demo projects like this one happen.

Photos: This South Philly House Looks Like It’s About To Collapse

Morning Headlines: L&I Has Heard Rumors of Vacant Properties

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Image by Duncan Pearson via Philadelphia Real Estate Blog

Sometimes it’s endearing when very smart people have gaps in basic knowledge. Let’s say, for instance, that a MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient still has a VHS player and doesn’t know how to program it to tape a show, let alone how to replace it with a DVD player. That’s eccentric. It’s even kind of cute.

In Philadelphia, this kind of knowledge gap is de rigueur for smart people in city government. Putting aside the number of middling intellects who work in City Hall, there are plenty of folks who are really bright. Yet sometimes they say things that indicate a lack of familiarity with the city that suggests they still have “Save Billy Penn” buttons pinned to their canvas tote bags.

To wit:

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Lawyer for Ousted Penn State Prez Graham Spanier Will Lead Investigation Into L&I

Philadelphia Building Collapse

Well, this is odd. Yesterday Mayor Nutter finally announced the creation of a 16-member panel that will evaluate the Department of Licenses and Inspections, and the panel’s executive director will be former U.S. attorney Peter F. Vaira, an expert in organized crime and defense attorney for ousted Penn State president Graham Spanier.

Spanier, you might remember, was accused in the Freeh report of covering up allegations against Jerry Sandusky for more than a decade so that the school’s reputation and football program would not suffer. He was later charged with perjury, endangering the welfare of children, criminal conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and failure to report suspected child abuse.

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Mayor Nutter on Building Collapse: Oh, All Right, I’ll Appoint a Commission Already

The mayor finally got the message: The citizens of Philadelphia — and a member of his own administration who lost his daughter in the Salvation Army building collapse — were tired of waiting for a promised-but-not-yet-delivered creation of an independent review commission to investigate the incident.

Last week the Daily News’ Ronnie Polaneczky wrote a column in which she noted that the day after the tragedy, he said he’d convene the commission, yet he still hadn’t as of her writing. It was appalling. We said, “Take some time out from your schedule…and GET IT DONE.” Today at 3 p.m. Nutter will officially announce the creation of an independent advisory commission not just to review the accident, but to evaluate the Department of Licenses & Inspections overall. Now that’s getting it done.

Morning Headlines: Controller’s Office Calls L&I “Evasive”

Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections delivered a three-page document and a reference to a 3,000-page report to the Controller’s Office in response to a request that the Controller be allowed to monitor demolition procedures.

Controller Alan Butkovitz has accused L&I of “stonewalling,” and based on comments by the Butkovitz’s deputy Harvey Rice, the document seems to have made things worse: “Basically, what they did is evasive, which raises even more questions about their inspections and the work of L&I on demolitions and other matters,” Rice told the Inquirer.

Read more here.

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Dispatch: Could This Code Enforcement Strategy Work in Philadelphia?

Credit: Tim Kiser via Wikimedia Commons

Next City is hosting a live blog of the 2013 Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference, now ongoing in Philadelphia. This is one of Property’s contributions to that blog.

Every city wants to know the secret to effective, budget-friendly code enforcement. But if there’s a magic bullet, no one who attended “Creative Partnerships for New Municipal Approaches to Code Enforcement and Nuisance Abatement” on Tuesday at the Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference has yet discovered it.

The meeting room’s round banquet tables at the Pennsylvania Convention Center were crowded with people from Georgia, California, Mississippi — so many states and municipalities, all struggling to find a way to penalize absentee landlords and rid neighborhoods of vacant properties.

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Morning Headlines: Another House Collapse Challenges Suspension of Disbelief

It’s as if a virus has overtaken the city, or maybe it’s more like when someone tells you they just got a red Fiat and all of a sudden you can’t stop noticing red Fiats everywhere. Unfortunately, a red Fiat is benign (provided you like Italian automotive engineering) and building collapses are not.

Yesterday afternoon a vacant house in Mantua, on the 3600 block of Fairmount, crumbled to pieces the day demolition was scheduled to begin. The residents of the street were evacuated and assisted by the Red Cross; CBS 3 reports they are back in their homes now. Neighbors had feared 3623 Fairmount was a danger to the neighborhood, and as usual, they were right. From Fox 29:

Emergency demolition crews have been out on the 3600 block of Fairmount avenue all night. They’ve brought down the rest of this abandoned house that collapsed late this afternoon. In fact, the remaining wall that crews deemed dangerous came down by itself, almost injuring a worker.

L & I couldn’t tell me why demo work didn’t start on the house immediately. And we’ve learned the homeowner has a list of code violations dating back years.

It’s that last sentence that really rankles, particularly as this collapse comes a mere week after the partial collapse of a home on the 5700 block of Walnut Street. Let me guess: code violations? Taxes owed?

Moving right along…

• Stu Bykofsky reveals one potential reason things don’t get fixed in the city: citizens who are held responsible might be dead–in some cases, since 1996. No one passes the buck like the City of Philadelphia.
• Sandy Smith talks about “landlords who kill their own cash cows” with an example of someone who “opened a pub in a long-vacant storefront in a Philly neighborhood on the mend. The place proved popular and the proprietors were doing very well.” Then came a big rent hike–the kind that’s shutting down Pumpkin Market on South Street West.
PlanPhilly has an announcement about passive housing: “Ridge Flats, a proposed 146-unit apartment complex at 4300 Ridge Avenue in East Falls, was green lighted by the Zoning Board of Adjustment Wednesday afternoon.”

Headlines: Is L&I Mismanaged? Plus, ANOTHER Collapse

As we reported, City Council hearings on the building collapse at 22nd and Market continued yesterday with a raft of testimony from former L&I personnel, including onetime commissioners Fran Burns and Bennett Levin. While Burns was asked questions about the way demolition practices were implemented during her tenure, which lasted through last summer, Levin read an 11-page statement that was excoriating in tone. From the Inquirer:

Levin compared L&I’s duties to those of the Police and Fire Departments, suggesting that it had subordinated its public-safety responsibilities to “political expediency and economic development.” “No right-thinking person would tolerate managing either the Police Department or the Fire Department in the manner in which L&I has been managed,” Levin said…

The mayor rejected Levin’s characterization and list of examples of failed oversight, which included the Pier 34 disaster and another Richard Basciano-owned building that crumbled, ending the life of a judge. Nutter said Levin was out of touch. For more Inquirer coverage, go here.

In other news that doesn’t feel so much like other news, there was a partial building collapse in North Philadelphia overnight due to rain. An abandoned home on North 19th Street–vacant for a decade–fell in on itself, which was totally unsurprising to neighbors. From NBC 10:

Some residents of the North Philadelphia neighborhood, where a home partially collapsed Thursday afternoon, say they’ve filed complaints with the city about the abandoned home for years.

“I knew it was going to happen. It was just a matter of time,” said Shamika King.

For more on that particular instance of municipal negligence, go here.

• And speaking of demolition, intentional or otherwise, crews now turn to Sears building’s facade in Camden, says philly.com
• A Berwyn-based real estate company that has focused on New York is going to give some love to the Philly area, writes Natalie Kostelni
• “Screwdriver vs. power tool. That’s what led to Thursday’s roughly 12-hour strike at the Convention Center.” Now the strike is over. Good thing.

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