TOWARD the end of April, Elizabeth Simmons got three violation notices — for infractions committed on three dates, beginning in December — from Licenses and Inspections. The violations cited "unfit structures" in her house, such as a collapsed roof and walls, and said that if Simmons didn't demolish the house, the city would do so and charge her.
Simmons was shocked. Her roof and walls were just fine. She quickly realized the city's mistake: The address listed on the violations, in North Philadelphia, was nowhere near her home in Southwest Philly. But she was still worried that she could be held responsible for the cost of the demolition.
Simmons visited the property in North Philadelphia and found it had already been demolished. Property records show that the owner, a different Elizabeth Simmons, owed the city $4,417.71 in property taxes.
So Simmons made the trek to City Hall to get the situation straightened out. The city sent her on a wild goose chase, from Licenses and Inspections to the Department of Records to the Prothonotary's Office and back to L&I.
"Every department is like, 'I don't know,'" she said of her experience at City Hall and the Municipal Services Building.
At the Department of Records, Simmons got the deed for the property for which she was wrongfully cited. It was clear evidence that she wasn't the right Elizabeth Simmons. The property was sold to this Elizabeth Simmons in 1945. Our Simmons hadn't even been born.
But even with hard proof, city employees did not put her mind at ease. According to Simmons, one worker told her that she should not worry about the violations and that she wouldn't get a bill for the demolition. But he didn't give her anything in writing, and Simmons didn't want to take his word for it.
So she left City Hall and gave us a call instead.
PUT IT IN WRITING: One of L&I's biggest hurdles when it comes to enforcing maintenance rules is finding irresponsible property owners. They might be dead, or moved out of the city, or just hard to track down. So last fall, the agency announced it was hiring a team of interns to help locate these landowners.
Sometimes, says L&I spokeswoman Maura Kennedy, these interns make mistakes.
When we spoke with Kennedy about Simmons' situation on Friday, she said that, actually, L&I did clear up the mistake immediately. It had just failed to communicate this to Simmons.
Simmons finally got confirmation that she was off the hook when she asked Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell's chief of staff, Sandy Hayes, to look into the problem. Hayes contacted Otis Haigler, L&I's director of enforcement and emergency services, who followed up with Simmons by email to apologize and confirm, in writing, that "the error had been corrected." Maybe putting corrections like this in writing would make a good policy going forward.
YOU GOT THE WRONG GUY! Kennedy told us this wasn't the first time she's heard of a problem like this. There's a couple of ways to clear it up, Kennedy told us.
The name and phone number of the inspector who wrote the violation should be on the violation. Give him or her a call and explain the situation. We'll note that Simmons did this but didn't hear back for a week.
You can also request an appeal with the L&I Review Board. If you're appealing a violation because you believe the violation is incorrect (for example, if you're saying, "Actually, my roof isn't broken"), then you must appeal within 30 days of the first violation. If you're appealing a violation because of an identity mix-up, you can appeal whenever.
Or you can just call the L&I number that's listed on the violation. n
Can't get answers about city services? We can help. Reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org, 215-854-5855 or on Twitter @phillyhowl. More columns at philly.com/cityhowl. Juliana Reyes writes for It's Our Money, a joint project of the Daily News and WHYY funded by the William Penn Foundation that works to shed light on where your tax dollars are going.