Can This New Plan Finally Fix Philly’s Decrepit Sidewalks?

The city's L&I commissioner wants to ticket property owners who don't repair their crumbling sidewalks. Today, deadbeat owners get off scot-free.

A big tripping hazard on 24th Street. | Photo courtesy of reader @philavore.

A big tripping hazard on 24th Street. | Photo courtesy of reader @philavore.

[Updated 6:50 p.m.] Philadelphia might be ranked the fourth most-walkable city in the country, but the on-the-ground reality for pedestrians in many neighborhoods suggests otherwise: The city’s sidewalks are warped, disintegrating, disreputable blocks of concrete and brick that you can hardly step on, let alone maneuver a bicycle, stroller, or — dare I say it — hoverboard across.

Sidewalks are the responsibility of property owners — not the city — in Philadelphia. But other cities with a similar setup — New York, Minneapolis and Memphis among them — have developed innovative strategies to incentivize owners to repair their sidewalks. Conversely, Philly lacks any sort of stick or carrot to nudge property owners toward being good stewards. Last year, the city’s streets department issued 909 notices to property owners for failing to maintain the condition of their sidewalks. As a result of those notices, said miscreants paid a grand total of zero dollars in penalties. That’s an enforcement arm as flimsy as a hall monitor.

But with a new mayoral administration arrives hope for a change. The idea of returning luster to our woebegone sidewalks is being spearheaded by David Perri, who was recently appointed as head of the city’s Licenses and Inspections department by Mayor Jim Kenney. Perri believes that if the city transferred sidewalk enforcement to his department and allowed municipal employees to issue tickets to violators, a whole lot more repairs would get done. 

The new sidewalk-enforcement program would be something of a throwback. During the 1960s, the city let it be known that residents needed to make adequate repairs to their sidewalks. Perri recalls a vivid memory of his father mixing mortar in a repurposed refrigerator drawer to fill cracks in the concrete outside their Philly home before the inspectors showed up. “I remember it making this noisy, squeaky sound that still makes my blood boil,” Perri recalled. The elder Perri was not only compelled to be a good steward of the sidewalk out of some old-timey sense of civic duty, but also because he might’ve taken a hit to wallet otherwise. “Looking back, he didn’t want to get hit with an assessment bill, which was probably really driving my dad,” Perri said.

Back when Perri was a kid, the streets department issued notices to property owners who had shoddy sidewalks, and then gave them a window of time to repair them. If an owner didn’t meet that deadline, the city would hire a contractor to do the work instead, assess the cost of the repair, and then sell that assessment to a collection agency, which would round up the money from the property owner and use it to pay the contractor. “So the city itself never paid for private property, because we’re not allowed to,” says Perri.

Sound like rule-bending? Sure, it was to a degree, but the city got a lot of improvements done as a result, Perri said. When the local economy tanked in the ’70s and unemployment rose well above the national average, many Philadelphians could no longer afford basic costs of living, let alone sidewalk repairs — no matter who was banging on their door. The third-party system crumbled. “People didn’t have the ability to pay,” said Perri. “The collection rate on the assessment bills fell to the point where nobody would buy the assessment from the city.”

Nothing has changed over the last 40-plus years. Until now, of course, if Perri gets his way. In conversations with Councilman Mark Squilla, Perri has suggested crafting legislation that would make sidewalk repairs a property-maintenance issue — shifting the prerogative from Perri’s old department (streets) to his new one (L&I) — and enable city workers to issue tickets instead of toothless notices. Under Perri’s plan, sidewalk violations would also show up in the city’s property records.

That last part, Perri believes, is the real game-changer. Once sidewalks become a public record, insurance and mortgage companies will know of any violations that exist. Those companies typically want to see a clean, defect-free certification on a property before they issue a new policy or loan to a homeowner. So when someone goes to buy a house, they would likely have to ensure that any sad-looking slabs of sidewalk get repaired. At least that’s how Perri’s thinking goes. “As part of the settlement, there’s an agreement made to do the repairs on the property,” he said. “We believe that making the sidewalk defect a known public record would, over time, drive the compliance rate to get the sidewalks fixed.”

Compelling property owners to fix sidewalks through insurers and mortgage companies is a long-term fix. In the short-term, L&I will use ticketing as leverage. Perri can already hear the alarm bells ringing in your head — an L&I extortion racket! — and he has a plan to curb the potentially regressive nature of this new enforcement power. He wants to limit ticketing to strictly-defined geographic zones where the largest number of pedestrians travel.

For instance, property owners in the area between South and Vine streets, and river to river, could be written up for crumbling sidewalks. The idea makes sense for two reasons. First, it focuses on getting immediate repairs done in the most well-traveled pedestrian corridors. Secondly, folks living in Center City are more likely to be able to foot a $500 bill to replace a patch of concrete than residents in many other neighborhoods. “It makes no sense to write up … people who do not have the ability to make the repair,” said Perri. “But, on the other hand, we really need to drive this because we need walkable sidewalks.”

Perri  insists that this isn’t about making it rain: “I could care less if we get a dime out of this,” he said. “The idea is not to make money. The idea is to fix the sidewalks.”

It’d be too prospective to size up the likelihood of such a bill passing through Council, given that there’s not even a draft to work with. (Perri said that he’d like to see something introduced before the end of the spring legislative session.) When we first spoke a few weeks ago with Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for Mayor Kenney, she voiced a concern that many Council members — and the public — will no doubt share. “We aren’t comfortable adding more functions to L&I while it’s still undergoing reform measures to more effectively complete its core services,” she said.

On Tuesday, she told us she hadn’t been briefed on Perri’s plan previously and that “improving the safety and navigability of sidewalks is important to this administration. The mayor is working with Commissioner Perri to ensure that adding sidewalk enforcement to L&I’s jurisdiction wouldn’t infringe on the department’s ability to tackle their current priorities.”

Still, the thought of giving more responsibilities to L&I, when the department has been widely criticized in recent years for failing to do its current job, might be hard to swallow for some. Then again, so is the sight of decrepit sidewalks in neighborhoods all across the city.

This has post has been updated to include new information from Lauren Hitt, Mayor Kenney’s spokeswoman.