Bad News in the Blight Wars: Judge Rules Against City’s Most Effective Anti-Blight Program

The city has already appealed the decision.
A blighted, vacant home lacking doors and windows on an otherwise healthy block in West Philadelphia. | Image: Google Streetview.

A blighted, vacant home lacking doors and windows on an otherwise healthy block in West Philadelphia. | Image: Google Streetview.

Philadelphia has a novel and seemingly highly effective anti-blight law on the books known as the Doors & Windows ordinance.

The law empowers the City to order owners of vacant property on otherwise healthy blocks to put real, functional doors and real, functional windows on their buildings, instead of the plywood “doors” or sheet-metal “windows” so often used to seal up vacant structures.

The financial penalties for flouting the ordinance are extreme: $300 per opening, per day.

Although disliked by some owners of vacant buildings for obvious reasons, the ordinance is a simple, elegant, cost-effective way for the City to slow or halt the blighting influence of empty buildings in still-healthy neighborhoods.

But as PlanPhilly reports, a Common Pleas Court judge last month wrote an opinion that calls the legality of the ordinance into question. Judge Linda Carpenter wrote that the ordinance “appears to be concerned more with aesthetics and the appearance of occupancy rather than blight, safety and security.”

Writes Jared Brey for PlanPhilly:

The case is focused on a property at Germantown Avenue and Oxford Street in Kensington, a massive vacant structure that formerly housed the Gretz Brewery. Owner Tony Rufo was hit with a series of violations from L&I related to the property in 2012 and 2013. He subsequently resolved all the violations, except for those related to the doors and windows ordinance, which applies on blocks with a vacancy rate lower than 20 percent.

Rufo appealed the doors and windows violations to the Board of L&I Review, which found them to be proper. He then appealed to the Court of Common Pleas, which ruled in Rufo’s favor in late September, saying that the doors and windows ordinance is unduly focused on aesthetics.

Brey reports that the City is already appealing the decision, and L&I will continue to enforce the ordinance.

A 2014 study by The Reinvestment Fund found that city blocks strategically targeted by L&I for intense code enforcement experienced a 32 percent increase in property values, compared to a 1.6 percent increase in control blocks. The Doors & Windows ordinance has played a central role in that strategic enforcement.

Of L&I’s many, extensive problems, one that is lesser known is the agency’s under-use of strategic code enforcement (a shortcoming the TRF report was intended to help address). The agency is largely complaint driven, meaning that most code enforcement inspectors spend most of their time responding to calls from residents. That’s an important function, of course, but such scattershot enforcement does not yield the same sort of transformative results as does highly-targeted strategic enforcement.

There are people within L&I who very much want the agency to use more of its limited resources in the service of strategic code enforcement. It’d be a shame if the courts take away one of the most effective tools at their disposal.