The group that took up residence at the home on the 1500 block of Lindley Avenue, in the city’s Logan section, was making the elderly neighbors nervous.
Those who’d live on the block for years knew the property owner had died. But every day, they saw the same group of men and women shuttling in and out of the house. They witnessed arguments and suspicious transactions. The police were called to report the trespassers. Eventually the group left, only to be replaced by another.
The elderly neighbors who reported the trespassers are this reporter’s in-laws, and their experience is common in Philadelphia. The city has 25,000 vacant structures, where people often take up residence. The practice, known as squatting, is illegal. But when the property owner is not present to file a complaint, and no other illegal activity is apparent, it’s virtually impossible for neighbors to get squatters out. That’s partly because it’s difficult to determine whether alleged trespassers have the right to be in the property, and partly because the city agencies charged with handling the issue are not on the same page.
“Part of the problem is there hasn’t been ongoing communication between the agencies, and we’re working to try to bridge that gap,” said police spokesman Lt. John Stanford. “It’s not just the police, Licenses & Inspections (L&I), or the city. Everyone has to work together. If there’s illegal activity we can go in and make arrests, but to keep people out, L&I has to clean and seal the property and post no trespassing signs.”
Stanford said the police are often hamstrung in terms of getting trespassers out because they aren’t sure who is a trespasser and who isn’t. “We’re pulling up and we don’t know who owns the property,” he said. “Sometimes you have feuding family members come out and say, ‘This person left it to me.’ It’s an estate issue that has to be corrected. It may not be that somebody’s lying. It might be that someone does not know if the property was sold.”
Neighbors are sometimes in the dark as well, Stanford said. “They may not know the property’s been purchased through sheriff’s sale,” he said. “That’s the part where you have to have communication with agencies to know the property had a tax lien placed on it.”
In other words, said Phil Lord, an attorney who serves as executive director of the Tenant Union Representative Network (TURN), “If the neighbor says someone’s a squatter and they can’t prove it, the police can’t just walk in and put them out.”
In fact, Lord said, the only clear-cut way for neighbors to get squatters out is if criminal activity such as drug dealing is occurring in the property. The police can make an arrest based on that criminal activity, and the District Attorney’s office can confiscate the property. But in cases where the property owner has died and someone new is living in the house — a common scenario according to Stanford — it becomes the neighbor’s word against that of the alleged trespassers.
“If the tenant says the owner let me in here, how do you prove that they didn’t if the owner let them in before they died?” Lord asked rhetorically. “There needs to be someone there with higher right and title— someone like a relative of the owner — who can say, ‘This person is a squatter.’”
Still, Lord said, squatters aren’t always bad. Sometimes they actually help the community. “If [a squatter] took over a house I would say, ‘Oh great, somebody is going to take over,’ as opposed to an abandoned property.”
Linda Ware Johnson, senior attorney in the landlord tenant unit of Community Legal Services, said the term squatter is derogatory. “There are all kinds of different scenarios that might cause people to move in to a property. Whether one thinks that’s right or wrong is a different issue.”
Under the law, it’s wrong, said Stanford of the police department. “If there is someone squatting in a property and the owner is located, we have a complainant and we can make an arrest for trespass or defiant trespassing because that person has no right to be in the property,” he said. “In a situation where a person cannot be found we have the challenge of working with other agencies to locate the owner or work with the neighbors, if the neighbors can find a relative.”
But in many cases, neither the owner nor a relative can be found, said Maura Kennedy, of the Department of Licenses and Inspections, the agency in charge of building code enforcement. L&I estimates the city has 40,000 vacant parcels, 25,000 containing empty houses or old industrial sites. Kennedy said the agency has cross-referenced various databases to find the owners of 12,000 vacant properties and send them violations and bills, and they’ve sent letters to the owners where they’ve done abatement (or repair) work.
The abandonment is just a symptom of a larger problem, Kennedy said. The city has lost 600,000 people since 1950, and those people won’t come back overnight.
Still, Kennedy said, the city has a plan to address vacancy. It’s called the Vacant Property Management Strategy.
The goals of the strategy, which was launched in 2011 as part of a larger initiative by the city’s Managing Director and Finance Director’s offices, are to improve the maintenance of vacant property and to put it back into productive use. Kennedy said the strategy is unique to Philadelphia, and is being cited as a national best practice by the International Code Council, which sets building and property maintenance standards.
As part of the strategy, L&I used researchers to map neighborhoods, and identified properties that were likely to be vacant using several criteria, including whether the owner had applied for a vacant property license, or had been cited for violations that are indicators of vacancy.
The three-pronged strategy includes finding property owners, using new code enforcement measures to address blight, and taking more aggressive and consistent action through the court system.
While the strategy has been lauded in building maintenance circles, the level of abandonment in some North and West Philadelphia neighborhoods remains sobering. On some city streets, entire blocks are comprised of vacant properties, and those properties remain magnets for squatters.
In a city where a 28 percent poverty rate is clearly visible in such neighborhoods, L&I is aware that their strategy must be tailored to the realities of each area. It’s unfortunate, Kennedy said, but it’s real.
“In the areas where there is a high density of vacant properties, there’s not a lot of value to those properties,” she said. “In those types of communities we do a lot of abatement work in terms of cleaning and sealing, making sure the property’s secure in order to prevent entry. That’s where a lot of our demolitions are as well. There’s not much of a private market and not much of an economic incentive [for the owners to save the properties] in those areas,” she said.
In census tracts with a low density of vacancy, L&I is trying to force owners to repair their properties and fining them when they don’t. L&I can fine property owners $300 per day for each non-functioning door or window.
Kennedy said the program is working. “We have about a 52 percent positive response rate with doors and windows enforcement,” Kennedy said. “That other 48 percent falls into three categories. Thirty percent or more are deceased. That’s where we have to use other types of tools. Another 30 percent have very high liens on the property for unpaid taxes or utility bills. The other third are the people I call the jerks. We know who they are and those are the people we haul into court and hold accountable.”
In the meantime, others have plans for the city’s vacant properties. They want to occupy those properties, and according to those who deal with housing on a daily basis, it’s not always for nefarious reasons.
“We’re still in one of the worst economic times in our lifetimes,” said Linda Ware Johnson of Community Legal Services. “There’s a lack of affordable new housing on the market, people have lost jobs, lost their unemployment or are living in the park. Maybe that person is a squatter, but then maybe that person’s cousin said, ‘Why don’t you just go live there?’
“People want simple solutions to really complex problems,” she said. “It’s important to see the big picture and not just the small picture because the small picture doesn’t always tell the whole story.”