The party was over in Germantown, but one stretch limo never made it home.
Since January, that rusting, silver chauffeur car has been moldering by a community garden on Hansberry Street in the Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood, taking up several parking spots and posing an eyesore for neighbors. Duct tape secures its rear bumper and lights, its back window is busted and patched over with trash bags.
“It was funny on the first day,” volunteer garden keeper Claudia Ginanni said of the decaying Lincoln Royale. “It’s not funny on the 90th.”
From junked SUVs in Southwest Philly to stranded sedans in Kensington, Philadelphians are contending with a historic deluge of abandoned vehicles. The list includes flatbed trailers and cherry pickers, graffiti-marred speedboats, orphaned Tastykake trucks, and a campaign van once used by former gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner.
Officials say they face a backlog of more than 34,000 active reports of abandoned vehicles. In the past, the city had towed between 10,000 to 12,000 cars off the streets each year. But those numbers have dropped, while complaints have risen nearly fivefold between April 2020 and the beginning of this year, according to an Inquirer analysis of 311 call// data.
Residents are also waiting longer than they have in years for the city to act on these reports. In 2020, it took two months on average for the city to have an abandoned car towed after it was reported. Now it takes closer to six months.
The city blames the growing fleet of cast-aside cars on everything from a spike in pandemic-related complaints, to staffing issues at the police unit that is supposed to investigate abandoned cars, to changes in state rules for towing junkers.
City spokesperson Sarah Peterson said surging unemployment during the pandemic caused more people to ditch their vehicles, while more people were at home to notice and report the nuisance. Around the same time, she said, the state ordered municipalities to hit the brakes on towing, because some owners may have simply been waiting for the money or time to perform repairs on their vehicles.
But City Hall also made decisions that contributed to the mess.
Pennsylvania law requires police to investigate and authorize the removal of an abandoned vehicle. In Philadelphia, the Police Department’s Neighborhood Services Unit handles that duty, as well as other quality-of-life issues. But the unit has been wracked by staff attrition since the pandemic — sometimes reassigning officers to fight crime.
As a result, police statistics show the number of vehicles the unit has removed from the streets since 2019 has dropped by almost a quarter.
The backlog is unlikely to shrink anytime soon. Peterson said there are no immediate plans to put neighborhood services officers back on the abandoned car detail, as they are needed for various public-safety initiatives aimed at deterring violent crime.
“As critical areas in the city stabilize, the command staff will determine the next steps,” Peterson said.
Although Mayor Jim Kenney called for a one-off removal of hundreds of abandoned vehicles from Kensington as recently as 2019, abandoned cars now add to a list of quality-of-life complaints that critics say compounded over the last two years: chronic illegal dumping, a backlog of outed streetlights, and a bug-ridden 311 system.
Now, some say that needs to change.
City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier called for a budget infusion to address the glut of abandoned cars, saying the neglected vehicles themselves attract crime. She noted that the majority of abandoned car complaints originate from zip codes with high rates of gun violence.
Gauthier said the city needs to either ensure the police department has the resources to remove cars or find another agency to do the job.
“There’s no reason police should be handling abandoned cars in addition to a number of other quality-of-life issues that fall on the police department’s plate,” she said.
Cars take a backseat in face of surging crime
The police unit that investigates abandoned cars has lost 11 cops — about a third of its staff — since 2020 began. With the department facing a shortage of patrol officers due to dwindling recruitment, a spike of retirements — and some officers abusing a disability benefit — none of those NSU officers were replaced.
Since then, Deputy Commissioner Joel Dales moved the 23 remaining staffers — mostly veteran cops hired in the 1980s or 1990s — to patrol. Dales did not respond to a request for comment.
In mid-2020, the officers were detailed to protest duties, during the mass unrest following the killing of George Floyd. In 2021, they were sent to short-staffed rec centers and city pools.
This year, these quality-of-life cops were moved yet again — assigned to hot spots for violence, as the department attempts to reduce gun crime. Others from the unit were detailed to a new initiative called “Welcome Back Center City,” an effort to increase police visibility downtown.
Since the beginning of 2020, neighborhood services officers were responsible for just seven arrests, but have meanwhile piled up overtime, with 20 officers collectively logging more than $540,000 worth last year alone, with some officers earning over $58,000 a piece.
Officials said most of that money is reimbursed by the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which uses the officers to review its automated red-light camera violations.
Staring at the white Dodge Charger that’s been wasting away outside his Southwest Philadelphia home for six months, Oskar Castro wonders why officers on daily patrol in the neighborhood can’t help the problem.
“It’s ironic that these are the most overly policed areas where you find this stuff happening,” said Castro, a 53-year-old homeowner who works at a nonprofit. “The police might not catch the person leaving the cars here. But they could at least ticket the cars while they’re driving around.”
Junked cars, angry neighbors
In Kensington, where the drug trade draws an estimated $1 billion in revenue, Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said abandoned cars in her district often are broken into and used for drugs or prostitution.
She blasted the Neighborhood Services Unit reassignments as “stupid,” and, echoing Gauthier, said that abandoned cars are like broken windows — a sign that no one is watching or concerned.
“We’ve created an environment of lawlessness that has little to do with police and a lot to do with people feeling like the city doesn’t care about them,” Quiñones-Sánchez said.
In the Castor Gardens neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia, community advocate Robert Rudnitsky said lax enforcement turned “entire streets into parking lots for abandoned trucks.”
Near clusters of auto-body shops in Frankford and Southwest Philadelphia, rows of beat-up cars have taken over entire blocks, spilling onto private property, as proprietors illegally store cars being sold off part by part or vehicles awaiting repairs.
Neighbors say some operators are intentionally gaming the city’s towing rules, which require an abandoned car to be parked in the same spot for 30 days before removal.
“They play the ‘move the car’ game, and they just move it around the block,” said Kim Washington, executive director of the Frankford Community Development Corporation.
Hundreds of cars reported to 311 as abandoned recently appear to be missing license plates, or have vehicle identification numbers obscured, making it harder for police to identify cars for removal.
Should the city haul off cars en masse?
In an effort to rid the streets of abandoned cars, city spokesperson Irene Contreras Reyes said Philadelphia has quietly conducted several smaller “sweeps” in recent years, removing more than 150 hazardous vehicles at once. But such efforts “are time consuming and require extensive attention to detail.”
In 2000, Mayor John F. Street made good on a campaign promise to fight blight, pledging to haul 40,000 junked cars off streets and city-owned vacant lots in just 40 days. The program focused on Kensington, North Philadelphia, and Southwest Philadelphia, which, much like today, had the most abandoned cars.
Street assigned the neighborhood services unit — which had 46 officers at the time, nearly double its current roster — to work with 25 private tow companies in a blitz involving over one hundred tow trucks, front-end loaders, and car crushers. Street personally drove one of the tow trucks.
While the $1.6 million initiative fell short of its initial goal, the long-term focus on junked cars largely paid off. Street later claimed to have removed some 289,000 abandoned cars from the streets throughout his eight years in office.
But today, with more pressing problems on the horizon, the city has no plans for a mass towing effort, even as residents get fed up with deteriorating conditions in many neighborhoods.
Ginanni, the Germantown gardener, thought the city finally noticed her complaints after a tow truck appeared to hitch up the stretch limo on Friday morning.
But the tow was simply nudging the abandoned partymobile down the street to clear the way for paving work.
“Unbelievable,” she said.