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The brick home at 5702 Kingsessing Ave., sits beneath a rusting façade. Weather-beaten plywood curls away from its sealed upper windows. Giant weeds grow unchecked. Cracked cement steps lead to a porch where a sign is haphazardly stuck to a boarded up door.
“Auction: By order of Philadelphia Housing Authority,” the sign says, and lists a date of July 16, 2013. A few feet away an orange-and-black sign says, “No trespassing. The Department of Licenses and Inspections has cleaned and sealed this property.”
The house did not sell at auction and is still owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) according to city records. It is one of the roughly 1,900 publicly owned vacant properties that have been cited by the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) for blight-related violations in the past year. Because public agencies like PHA are not taken to court when they are cited, they are not assessed the fines that private owners must pay. That’s unfair on its face, but that’s not the worst of it. Public agencies also have a dismal record of fixing the violations for which they are cited.
Only 17 percent of the publicly owned properties cited for blight violations in the past two years have had the problems fixed, according to L&I. That means city-related agencies, while touting their efforts to fight blight during this week’s Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, have largely failed to clean up the blighted property they own.
Over the last few decades, government and quasi-government agencies have acquired about 9,500 properties, says Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Brian Abernathy. The purchases go back to the big-money urban renewal era of the 60s. Some of the properties were acquired for projects that didn’t take place. Others were acquired because of structural problems, like the sinking homes in the city’s Logan section. Many of the properties were already blighted when they came into public ownership.
Even so, it’s hard to deny that the properties have been neglected by a city whose agencies failed to live by their own rules, even as whole neighborhoods fell victim to the scourge of abandonment.
“The city as a whole didn’t enforce the property maintenance code for decades strongly enough,” said Deputy Managing Director Thomas Conway, who oversees the city’s CLIP program for vacant lots. “If the city did [enforce it] we would not have 40,000 lots, and buildings that need to be demolished, cleaned and sealed. It’s a decades-old problem that’s coming to a head now.”
And the problem shows no sign of going away. Not just because of private owners– actually 5,100 private owners complied after receiving CLIP violations for vacant lots. The issue is increasingly connected to public agencies that own blighted vacant property in the city.
As I previously reported, the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), with at least 685 of its properties receiving vacancy-related violations in the past year, owns the most. The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (RDA), which is deeply involved in the city’s effort to dispose of vacant property, has had at least 335 properties cited for vacancy-related violations in the past year. The Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation (PHDC) has had 257 properties cited. The District Attorney’s office has had 11 properties cited. The Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development (PIDC) has had at least 12 properties cited. The City of Philadelphia and its Department of Public Property has had 509 properties cited. And the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has had 102 of its properties cited.
So why don’t the agencies simply clean up the vacant property they own? The answer I received each time I asked the question boiled down to three words: Lack of resources.
PHA spokeswoman Nichole Tillman says the agency “does not have enough resources to upkeep its portfolio of scattered site housing due to budget cuts.” In March of this year, PHA, facing a $32 million cut in federal funding, laid off 82 employees, saving nearly $7.2 million in salary and benefits.
The RDA’s Abernathy, whom I met while we both worked as legislative aides in City Council more than eight years ago, told me that he has a maintenance staff of 13 to maintain thousands of properties across the city. That’s not enough manpower. But there’s no cavalry coming to the rescue, because the RDA can’t use its federal funding to pay for maintenance, and the sale of publicly held property through PhillyLandWorks hasn’t generated the kind of sales windfall that can support additional staff. In fact, Abernathy said, nearly 80 percent of Philadelphia’s publicly held property has drawn no interest at all.
Abernathy said he wants to change that, and he wants to bring his agency’s vacant property up to code. But the lack of available funding has made his job harder, and it’s made the difficulty in maintaining RDA’s vacant property more pronounced.
“Unfortunately there’s a significant resource question on how we [maintain the properties],” he said. “We’ll continue to look at partnerships like Neighborhood Services and I’ll continue to try and leverage as many resources as I can to address those problems. But with the number of vacant properties we have compared to the amount of resources we have, we’re not going to be able to address that problem the way we should.”
And therein lies the problem. As I listened to Abernathy and Conway and Tillman and others talk about the lack of resources to maintain publicly owned vacant property, I wondered if the city really has the stomach to deal with the problem.
As it stands, government agencies are contributing to a culture of abandonment where vacant lots and crumbling structures are the rule rather than the exception in some neighborhoods. In such places, city government has virtually given up, preferring to issue vacancy-related citations in places where the owners might actually pay the fines.
That means that citations for broken doors and windows are generally issued on blocks where either 80 percent of the houses are occupied, or where the Commissioner of the Dept. of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) has decided that an exception to that rule is warranted, said L&I spokesperson Rebecca Swanson.
In neighborhoods where abandonment is more pervasive, the city effectively looks the other way. That’s not good enough. Nor is it good enough for government agencies to say they don’t have the money to maintain their own vacant property.
“You can’t let buildings fall down and be a blighting influence in communities,” said Rick Sauer of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations. “It’s not just about disposing of property and acquiring more to assemble, but dealing with doing a better job of maintaining the vacant inventory that already exists. The city needs to do a better job so the properties they own are not as much of a blighting influence until they can get them out the door.”
I agree with Sauer’s point, which he made while arguing for the implementation of a land bank — a vehicle which would allow the city to bundle vacant properties even when they are privately owned, thus removing a huge roadblock to development in blighted communities.
Sauer’s organization has been touting the land bank idea for years, but his argument has never been as convincing as it is now, when the city is in need of money to help the public schools. Sauer said that even now, the city can increase its property tax revenue by maintaining publicly owned vacant properties. Doing so makes the parcels around those properties more valuable, thus increasing the amount of property tax revenue that can be collected.
We must find the money to maintain publicly owned vacant properties, because one thing is certain: A 17 percent compliance rate among government and quasi-government agencies cited for blight is unacceptable.
Abernathy said he understands the frustration. “I don’t have a magic wand I can wave to make it all go away, but I do get it and I’m actually okay when people are angry with us. Most of the time they have a right to be and I think the other takeaway is that this problem didn’t occur overnight. It was decades in the making and it’s going to take some time to fix.”
The clock starts now.