Brooklyn brothers who own Phila. building where fatal fire started are deadbeats
WHAT A BUNCH of deadbeats. How else can you describe Michael, Yechiel and Nahman Lichtenstein, the New Yorkers who habitually collect and neglect real-estate properties in Philadelphia, including the enormous Thomas W. Buck Hosiery building, destroyed in a blaze Monday that took the lives of two firefighters.
WHAT A BUNCH of deadbeats.
How else can you describe Michael, Yechiel and Nahman Lichtenstein, the New Yorkers who habitually collect and neglect real-estate properties in Philadelphia, including the enormous Thomas W. Buck Hosiery building, destroyed in a blaze Monday that took the lives of two firefighters.
City officials said Tuesday that the Lichtensteins owe a stunning $385,665 in unpaid real-estate taxes from 24 of the 31 properties that they own either directly or through various companies.
Their ability to avoid accountability came to an end when the Buck building, at Jasper and York streets, erupted in flames, and the surrounding East Kensington community exploded with anger after worrying for months that something awful would happen inside the vacant, unsealed factory.
The city moved quickly in light of the fire to explain the steps it had taken recently to address the Lichtensteins' neglect of the Buck building.
But it's unclear if any attempts were made to hold the real-estate moguls responsible for other properties that they let rot since going on a real-estate shopping spree in 2005 and 2006.
Take, for example, 5736 Belmar Terrace, a Kingsessing rowhouse the Lichtensteins own through their company YML Realty Inc. Neighbors told the Daily News that the property - which has a relatively small $887 in unpaid real estate taxes - has been abandoned for years, and has served as a de facto headquarters for local thugs.
"The drug dealers set up shop in there," said Shareese Dixon, who has lived on the block for 23 years, as she glanced at the home's white door with the words "Da War" scrawled across it in blue.
Legions of flies were once drawn to the house because of a terrible stench, she said. A broken basement window recently was boarded up, but Dixon said she was certain the owners weren't the ones who did it.
"I haven't seen them around here," she said. "They can just buy them and leave them."
At 60 N. Salford St. in West Philly - another property owned by YML Realty, for which the company has never paid property taxes - the first-floor windows and door are boarded up, and a chipped wooden support beam beneath the porch roof slants precariously inward.
Neighbors said the property has been abandoned for two decades, but someone recently took control of the property and added new windows on the second floor.
There are no records that indicate the house, which has $8,531 in unpaid taxes, has been sold.
Municipal Court records show that the Department of Licenses and Inspections has taken the Lichtensteins to court at least four times since February of last year because of problems that ranged from fire code violations to a lack of a housing license in the following properties: 6603 Ditman St., 1708 Reed St., 5309 Wyalusing Ave. and 6110 Chancellor St.
In each instance, the cases were dismissed because the agency tried to serve court papers only at the neglected properties, not at the owner's business address in New York.
Mayor Nutter said Tuesday that the city is doing a full review of the Lichtensteins' real-estate holdings in the city.
He again spoke of the possibility that the absentee owners could face criminal-negligence charges, depending on the outcome of the investigation into the Buck building fire.
Pursuing unpaid property taxes has been a longtime goal of Nutter's administration, but the Lichtensteins' enormous debt to the city suggests there's much room for improvement.
"The [city] doesn't enforce its laws. As a consequence, people don't respect it," said City Councilman Bill Green, who earlier this year introduced legislation for a streamlined system to collect back property taxes.
News of the fatal East Kensington blaze had not traveled to Brooklyn's Borough Park section, where, according to Yechiel Lichtenstein's neighbor, the family is known in the Orthodox Jewish community as the publishers of Hamodia, "the daily newspaper of Torah Jewry."
"They had a lot of properties, but now it's tough" to develop them due to the sluggish economy, said the neighbor, who didn't want to be named. The neighbor said that he'd reached Yechiel Lichtenstein by phone but that Lichtenstein told him he was out of town.
A woman who rents the first floor of Lichtenstein's Fifth Street home described him as a "really good guy."
Yechiel Lichtenstein is described on a website for a travel package called the "Greatest Getaway" as a rabbi who is also "an acclaimed speaker, mashpia [Hebrew for a person of influence], therapist, and published writer."
The site also says he is a clinical director of a mental-health facility in New York called the Core Group.
But the Lichtensteins continued to lie low Tuesday, hiding behind lawyers and a spokesman, who issued a statement Monday saying they would cooperate with any investigation. They provided no updates Tuesday.
No one answered the door Tuesday at the office of Hamodia, across the street from the firehouse for Engine 250 of the New York City Fire Department.
In a March 30 article on the blog Hidden City Philadelphia, Michael Lichtenstein blamed the state of the perpetually vacant Buck building on the economy.
He claimed that he didn't know who was responsible for maintaining the building, then told the writer of the article to "buzz off" unless he was willing to invest money into the property.
Deeds show that the Lichtensteins purchased the Buck building for $730,000 in March 2009 through a company they set up, York Street Property Development, from another one of their companies, YML Realty.
They obtained a zoning variance and convinced local residents that they would soon turn the gigantic building into a mixed-use property that would have included dozens of apartments.
A local firm, Landmark Architectural Design, was hired to work on designs for the building.
Vincent Mancini, the firm's principal, said he worked on the project "periodically" but learned Monday that the city had revoked the permits for the Buck building.
Municipal Court records show that the Water Department tried to take the Lichtensteins to court in 2009, '10 and '11 over more than $8,000 in unpaid water bills for the Buck building.
Those cases also were dismissed because the agency tried serving the owners court papers at the vacant warehouse, not the owners' business address.
Chris Sawyer was among a group of East Kensington residents who began to worry last fall that squatters or local drug addicts would accidentally set fire to the building, which was unsealed at various points.
Sawyer and others began complaining to the Department of Licenses and Inspections through the city's 3-1-1 service in November about the building being a potential danger.
L&I visited the property that month and sent a violation notice to the Lichtensteins and their local attorney, Darrell Zaslow, for failing to maintain the property. Additional notices were sent in December, January and March.
L&I commissioner Fran Burns said the agency was on the verge of taking the absentee owners to court over the ignored violations.
After the case went to court, L&I could have obtained an order to seal the building.
"It doesn't make the situation any better," Burns said, referring to Monday's fire, "but we really tried to bring the best that we could to what we see as our responsibility. We worked really hard."
Sawyer said the city should have moved months ago to seal the building, but L&I spokeswoman Maura Kennedy noted that the agency could have been sued if it didn't allow the owners opportunities to seal the property themselves, or have their day in court.
Mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald said the city in February also pursued having the property set up for a sheriff sale because of the unpaid taxes. The sale was expected to happen in June or July, he said.
"We have systematically moved on two fronts to deal with [the Buck building owners]," McDonald said. "Their circle was narrowing. Their ability to wriggle was being reduced."
Sawyer had harsh words for the city's defense of its handling of the absentee owners.
"Tell the families of the two firefighters that are gone what a wonderful success you've had with that logic," he said.