A third of Philly’s building inspectors have quit since 2019. Critics say that threatens public safety.
The longtime problem appears to be getting worse amid what a union official called a "mass exodus" of inspectors.
Anthony Bronico joined the city Department of Licenses and Inspections in 2014, the year after a botched demolition job triggered a building collapse that destroyed an adjacent Salvation Army building on Market Street.
Six people died that day and 13 were injured. A week later, an L&I inspector assigned to the site took his own life.
With public outrage still swirling over L&I’s failure to properly monitor the demolition, the department desperately needed more building inspectors. Bronico was among the first inspector classes to graduate after the catastrophe. He found he enjoyed the work ― at least, at first.
“I thought I was going to be there for a long time,” Bronico, 42, said last week.
He lasted less than five years. In 2019, he left to run his own online business. The final straw, he wrote in a resignation letter, was being told by higher-ups to look the other way when big-time contractors broke the rules.
“Ethically, I can’t work for a place that will play to the politics of a situation,” Bronico wrote, “but bring the hammer down on smaller guys for the same wrongdoing.”
Bronico’s departure was not an isolated occurrence. He is part of what one union official last week called a “mass exodus” of L&I inspectors that, combined with the city’s construction boom, has prompted concerns of another looming catastrophe.
L&I has lost nearly a third of its inspector force between mid-2019 and the start of this year — about 50 men and women in all. And, although many employers lost staff during the pandemic, inspectors left at a rate three times higher than the department as a whole.
They are also leaving faster than they can be replaced. Last year, the department did not hire a single new inspector, and scores of vacancies remain.
While the department has long struggled with an inspector shortage, officials blamed the lure of more lucrative jobs outside city government for exacerbating the problem.
But in resignation letters and interviews with The Inquirer over the last month, seven former inspectors cited other factors, including a crushing workload; disputes over pay and promotions; mismanagement by the current leaders; and suspected political interference resulting in a double standard for inspection work.
The 2013 Market Street collapse led to the impaneling of an investigatory commission that concluded the shortage of L&I inspectors was a “stark and fundamental flaw.” The city erected a memorial to victims of the collapse, but nearly a decade later, city data and L&I insiders depict an inspection system still in trouble.
“I’d hate to see another 22nd and Market all over again,” said Jonathan Redmond, a former inspector and manager at L&I, who left in November.
Deep losses, deep impacts
The biggest losses have been in units that dispatch field inspectors. Excluding supervisors and staffers assigned to review construction plans, L&I employs just 48 code enforcement inspectors citywide today, while an additional 46 are assigned to inspect city construction or demolition sites, the agency says.
That latter figure is not far above an all-time low in 2010, when the department employed 31 construction inspectors. Today, subdivisions such as L&I’s West District are down to two housing code enforcement inspectors for tens of thousands of properties across much of West Philadelphia.
Peter F. Vaira, the former U.S. attorney who led the commission that investigated the Market Street collapse, said he is frustrated that the problem hasn’t been fixed, and is again headed in the wrong direction.
“We said, at that time, this is troublesome,” Vaira said of the commission’s 2014 report. “They are overworked, and they usually have too many [buildings] to look at.”
L&I declined to say exactly how big of a backlog the average inspector has today. But even in 2020, when the department employed dozens more inspectors, a union rep for these workers said she was “very alarmed” by short staffing.
Advocates for vulnerable tenants say they’ve also noticed staff shortages at L&I getting worse.
Osarugue Grace Osa-Edoh, a supervising attorney at the nonprofit Community Legal Services, pursues landlords in court on behalf of indigent tenants stuck in derelict rental units. But she can’t make a case in court unless L&I has documented poor conditions first.
“My cases are definitely affected by the shortage,” she said.
L&I spokesperson Karen Guss said that 14 inspectors are in training and that the department already has funding for about 50 more hires. L&I Commissioner Ralph DiPietro declined an interview request, but at a recent City Council budget hearing he explained there was no way to speed replacement, as inspector training takes half a year, or more. Historically, about half don’t finish that process.
“Between now and the end of the year … we’ll bring in 20 building inspectors and 20 code enforcement inspectors,” DiPietro said. “And that pretty much maxes us out in terms of how many we can process.”
Attrition is a challenge even in good times, he added, with most inspectors holding down jobs for “five to seven years” at most, as many were former construction workers taking up regulatory work as a second career on the way to retirement.
DiPietro said that, today, L&I is facing more difficulty attracting and retaining these late-career tradespeople, as many find far more lucrative work in the private sector.
“For the first time in a long time, the city is really not able to compete with these private companies,” DiPietro said.
April Gigetts, a former L&I inspector who now serves as president of the labor union that represents inspectors, disagreed with DiPietro’s explanation.
She said most inspectors “absolutely love the work” and the challenges of Philadelphia’s diverse building stock. The problem, she said, is an overwhelming workload that poses a growing safety risk — and problems with L&I’s current management.
“They’re being driven out,” she said of dozens of inspectors who have left.
Saddled with so many jobs each day, inspectors say they are not able to give each inspection enough scrutiny, Gigetts said, and often lack time to review construction plans before arriving on site. She recalled since-departed inspectors telling her they “just couldn’t take it anymore.”
“If you have folks out there feeling overwhelmed, it compromises life safety,” she said. “They felt like the department wasn’t hearing them and supporting them.”
One former inspector, who resigned last year, said, “You got guys out there doing a dangerous number of inspections a day.” He and several other former inspectors who were interviewed requested anonymity due to concerns that speaking out against L&I could hurt their career prospects.
Redmond, the former inspector and supervisor, also disagreed with DiPietro’s assessment that the staffing shortage was primarily a matter of economics. He said current leaders have made inspectors miserable.
“You can’t fix what’s going on within the department with the same people that broke it and then, subsequently, were promoted into upper-management positions,” he said.
Interference on the job
At last month’s hearing, City Council pressed L&I to take on more duties: tightening oversight of nuisance businesses, illegal construction sites, and slumlords, as well as assigning inspectors to work more nights and weekends to catch scofflaws.
After three children and one adult died in a fire last month at an unlicensed, rent-to-own property that lacked smoke detectors, several members wondered why L&I wasn’t conducting more proactive inspections to detect units in violation of city fire codes.
DiPietro told Council that the agency would need hundreds more inspectors to take on those proposed tasks. Meanwhile, current workloads were likely driving existing inspectors away.
“We demand a lot from our inspectors,” he said.
Despite the bleak outlook, several councilmembers praised DiPietro, and his responsiveness to their needs.
“There’s nothing like being able to call a commissioner at L&I, especially when you’re out walking the streets with residents,” said Council President Darrell L. Clarke. “It makes life a lot easier.”
But former inspectors say that type of interference from above can leave them feeling caught in the middle, between doing their jobs as they were trained and the powerful political or business interests that have their boss’ ear.
Last year, then-Councilmember Bobby Henon, who chaired the Council committee that oversaw L&I, was found guilty on federal corruption charges, in part due to meddling with L&I operations on behalf of electricians’ union leader John Dougherty.
“They have two sets of rules,” one former inspector said. “If someone connected wants to do something, they play by a different set of rules.”
The department is also being sued by inspector Lloyd Miner, who alleged he was racially discriminated against by upper management. In the suit, filed in April, he describes being singled out for being “too aggressive” in pursuing fire code violations and said he was later reassigned to “menial and demeaning tasks” such as issuing citations for trash or weeds.
A former inspector recalled similar blowback after he issued a stop-work order for the renovation of a Center City hotel in 2020, citing missing permits. An executive with the hotel chain and an official in the city’s Department of Commerce subsequently contacted him in efforts to move the project forward. An L&I supervisor then overrode the inspector’s citations, saying they had been issued in error.
The inspector was later suspended and transferred.
“Totally illegal,” said the inspector, who left L&I last year but requested anonymity to protect his current job. “They let people go back to work without permits in an active hotel. Then, they retaliated against me.”
Yet another inspector who recently left the department wrote in a resignation letter about an incident in which he was sent home without pay after he failed to shut down a construction site in 2020 that had drawn the ire of a councilmember’s office. That ex-inspector wrote that after visiting the site and finding no violations, his supervisor ordered him to inspect the site again.
“Why? Was my work not good enough the first time or did the councilman not like the report?” he wrote. “Inspectors are pressured, even threatened at times, from management into shutting down and issuing violations on properties despite the inspectors and supervisors’ judgment.”
Guss declined to go over specific allegations but said all L&I employees take a full day of ethics training their first week on the job and “are clearly and repeatedly urged to report any concerns they have along those lines to the Inspector General.”
Guss countered that L&I has taken some steps to stanch the bleeding.
Some electrical inspections are now outsourced to private companies, and L&I is investing in digital technology that could allow for “virtual” inspections. Job requirements for city inspectors, once tailored for building tradespeople, were opened to anyone with an associate’s degree in construction management or a related field. Guss also said that low inspector salaries — about $51,000, on average — had increased under Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration and that L&I leadership “supports further pay increases.”
But on other recruitment fronts, L&I seems to have stalled.
In 2020, L&I said it was in early talks to partner with the Community College of Philadelphia to boost trainee ranks and help diversify the department. While DiPietro recently talked up the program to Council as a potential “game changer,” two years later, the initiative was still in the “planning and development stage” and is hoped to launch next year, according to Guss.
The Market Street collapse panel concluded that L&I simply faced too many systemic challenges. “Political pressure” from “elected officials pass[ing] on constituents’ complaints” and a stream of Council legislation led to ever-increasing workloads. Meanwhile, its dual nature — as both an inspection and licensing agency — also meant there was constant pressure to keep permits flowing, even at the expense of safety.
Vaira, the commission head, said its final report concluded that the agency should be dissolved, and its permitting arm spun off. In its place would be a new, independent Department of Buildings, led by a professional engineer or architect, with an “undiluted building-safety voice.”
He thought the plan was solid and would lead to needed change. He was wrong.
“Our recommendation was to do away with L&I,” he said. “Start a new division, put an engineer in charge. It never went anywhere.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.