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260 unsafe buildings belong to city agencies

L&I is scrambling to keep up the multitude of crumbling buildings in Philly - many of which are owned by city agencies.

[CLICK photo for interactive map]  A demolition crew takes down an imminently dangerous building on 6th Street near Cumberland after it collapsed a second time.
[CLICK photo for interactive map] A demolition crew takes down an imminently dangerous building on 6th Street near Cumberland after it collapsed a second time.Read more(William Bender/Staff)

WHENEVER the skies open, Michele Myers knows it's only a matter of time before she hears a menacing noise echoing through her house.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

It's the familiar sound of the neighboring property's decaying innards - bricks, flooring, cinderblock - dislodging and slamming into her North Philadelphia rowhouse.

"Every time it rains, you hear the debris falling," Myers said. "I called the city, but they said unless the bricks are falling onto the pavement, it's not a priority."

Myers lives in the only occupied dwelling on the northwest side of 24th Street near Norris. She is surrounded by boarded-up, three-story redbrick rowhouses that stand - barely - as a monument to decades of neglect, the legacy of irresponsible owners who long ago stopped giving a damn or simply disappeared. They are the usual suspects most often blamed for the city's deteriorating homes.

But the landlord for 1914 N. 24th St., the house that spits bricks at hers, is the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which has been issued numerous violations by the Department of Licenses and Inspections since 2011 for a collapsed roof and interior floors.

That PHA-owned house is among about 30 government-agency-owned properties that L&I has deemed "imminently dangerous" - structurally unsound and in need of immediate action. The worst of the worst.

Records that L&I provided to the Daily News show that those government agencies - PHA, the city's Department of Public Property, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. - also own about 260 other properties that L&I has deemed "unsafe" and in need of repair or demolition within 30 days. All told, those agencies own about 6 percent of the city's estimated 5,100 dangerous properties.

In these instances, the owners aren't elusive slumlords that L&I can take to court. L&I can't take another city agency to court.

Some of the publicly owned buildings are simply left to rot - or worse. Last month, for example, a North Philadelphia rowhouse owned by the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. partially collapsed. The property has been deemed unsafe since 2012, L&I records show.

"The building is shifting and moving," said Danny Todd, who lives next door. The rowhouse's roof and rear wall have caved in. "We got grandkids that come over here and we don't want nothing to happen to them."

Residents are frustrated and furious. They can't understand why it takes so long to address such a dangerous hazard.

City officials say there is no easy fix, given the staggering number of vacant and derelict buildings in a poverty-choked city that has witnessed at least eight collapses since mid-February.

Blight: 'It never ends'

In a recent interview with the Daily News, L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams said his underfunded agency is fighting an uphill battle against blight.

"It's been a problem for decades," Williams said of the ramshackle homes that are most prevalent in North and West Philly.

To make matters worse, last winter's heavy snow contributed to a spike in L&I's list of dangerous buildings. The freeze-thaw cycle can wreak havoc on an unmaintained property.

Now, there are about 4,500 unsafe buildings and 600 imminently dangerous buildings in Philadelphia, according to L&I records. The agency typically demolishes about 500 properties a year, at a cost of about $15,000 each.

"There was a conscious attempt a number of years ago to try and eradicate blight through various programs like [Mayor John F. Street's] Neighborhood Transformation Initiative," Williams said. "The fact that it's 10 years later and we're still dealing with it shows how deep and complex the problem is."

L&I has about 80 inspectors and 13 demolition contractors. Williams said he's considering training other staffers to help out with smaller demolition requests - an aim at thinking outside the box to make the most of the agency's $9 million demolition budget.

The agency will soon see the number of lawyers it has to handle court proceedings double - to four.

"We still haven't even made a dent in the blight issue," said Scott Mulderig, who oversees L&I's emergency services division. "It's a revolving list, unfortunately. As we take 50 down, we get 50 more that are imminently dangerous. It's like the mail: It never ends."

In 2012 and 2013, L&I had to demolish about 150 publicly owned dangerous properties.

Williams said many of the dangerous properties ended up in the hands of government agencies after they were condemned or failed to sell at sheriff's sales.

PHA, meanwhile, has the largest scattered-site portfolio of any public-housing agency in the country. Of the estimated 4,000 properties that PHA owns, L&I has deemed 114 unsafe and 12 imminently dangerous.

Michele Myers wants to know why the PHA-owned house next to hers on 24th Street in North Philly has been allowed to deteriorate for years. A large, sloping tree now stands in what would have been the middle of the house and reaches freely into the sky. L&I declared the property imminently dangerous last fall.

"The whole back fell off a few years ago," Myers said.

Kelvin Jeremiah, PHA's president and CEO, said his agency is often hampered by bureaucracy when it tries to respond to dangerous properties.

Technically, buildings owned by PHA - which receives the bulk of its funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development - are federal property. So PHA must request permission from HUD to tear down one of its own buildings. That process, Jeremiah said, can take as little as two weeks, or as long as 10 months.

In years past, PHA regularly gave L&I the OK to demolish its dangerous properties without getting clearance from HUD. But it ended up owing the city millions in back costs.

"My information is that the [24th Street] property is approved for [demolition]," Jeremiah said. "I'm told that we were there back in 2013 to view that property, but I'm not sure that anything has been done yet."

Setting bad example?

Although demolishing buildings is expensive - particularly rowhouses attached to occupied buildings - vacant buildings can hurt a neighborhood even more, by increasing crime, creating a fire hazard and hurting property values. In rowhouses, a collapsed roof can cause flooding and structural problems in neighboring buildings.

Alan Mallach, a housing, planning and community-development expert at the Brookings Institution, said city agencies are sending the wrong message to property owners by sitting on nearly 300 dangerous buildings.

"I think that's a serious problem. Public agencies really need to set an example of responsibility in this area," said Mallach, former director of Trenton's Department of Housing & Economic Development.

The heads of the city agencies who own unsafe and imminently dangerous buildings all told the Daily News that they take the issue seriously and respond as quickly as possible to a problem that never stops growing:

* PHDC spokesman Paul Chrystie said that when his agency receives L&I violations regarding its properties, it attempts to have an inspector visit the property within a week. The agency usually requests that L&I demolish imminently dangerous buildings.

"With buildings cited as unsafe, the goal is to address any concerns within 30 days, although in truth that does not always happen," Chrystie said.

* Bridget Collins-Greenwald, commissioner of Philadelphia's Department of Public Property, said that it is L&I's responsibility to demolish imminently dangerous buildings, but that her department tries to make repairs to buildings deemed unsafe.

"We will make repairs to make something safe if it's unsafe, but unsafe is a very general code violation. It runs the gamut" of severity, Collins-Greenwald said.

* Brian Abernathy, executive director of the Redevelopment Authority, said that one of the agency's 12 inspectors will usually visit properties that have been deemed unsafe or dangerous within a couple of days of receiving notice from L&I.

"We make sure it's not something we can stabilize, and then we'll have L&I demolish it," he said. "We're trying to be more proactive on all of these properties, whether they're imminently dangerous or unsafe."

* Jeremiah said PHA has access to L&I's database and can see in real time if any of the agency's properties have been flagged.

Although it might take some time for PHA to get permission from HUD to tear down one of its buildings, "we can go out and conduct a site visit . . . and find ways to mitigate the issue," he said. "Sometimes that means strategically demolishing part of the property or putting up fencing to prevent folks from accessing it."

Jeremiah said PHA has also embarked on an ambitious plan to whittle down its catalog by auctioning off many properties.

Mulderig said L&I has also become more aggressive in notifying government agencies - including senior management - about their crumbling properties and trying to initiate action.

"In the past, we would send a notice and it would sit on somebody's desk," he said.

'Knock it down'

Hearing that a bunch of agencies have good working relationships doesn't mean much to an average Philly resident who lives near a building that looks as though it could be toppled by a stiff wind. The problem is the same, whether it's caused by bureaucratic inertia or a landlord who's fled the city.

"This needs to be torn down, but the inspector said they do it according to budget," said Bonita Myricks, whose Dauphin Street rowhouse is separated from a city-owned rowhouse by a large crack that runs from the doors to the roof. Squatters took up residence there last summer, she said.

"I'm afraid if it does come down, it's going to do damage to my house," said Myricks, who has lived in her home for 25 years. "That's a city property! What if bricks start falling? You wait until someone gets hurt?"

About a mile away on Franklin Street, Liz Lopez said she's lived for the past two years near a decrepit PHDC rowhouse that's on L&I's imminently dangerous list. Records show that a wall, roof and floors have been collapsing since 2010. A boarded-up PHA building also looms nearby.

"They got to try to knock it down, not just let it sit there," Lopez said of the PHDC building. "I've never seen anybody even come and look at it."

'No silver bullet'

Carlton Williams is sympathetic. He said he recently spoke with a block captain who noted she was grateful that the city tore down a neighborhood eyesore - albeit 20 years after she first asked for help.

"We have a continually aging infrastructure, and that makes it hard to keep up," he said. "But catching up to [owners] in court and getting them to actually repair or demolish a property is probably as big a challenge."

Matt Tice, a social worker who lives in North Philly, reached his wit's end last month over a roofless property that was raining bricks onto Susquehanna Avenue, about a block from a Broad Street subway stop, and around the corner from Temple University dorms.

Tice said he notified the city through 3-1-1 on Feb. 6 about the property, 1413 W. Susquehanna Ave., which is owned by the Redevelopment Authority. He received a response, letting him know that violation notices had been issued.

A month later, bricks were still tumbling from the building. Tice stuck a handmade sign, warning about the dangerous bricks, onto a small barricade that had been positioned in front of the property. Gregory Kelly, a local construction worker, called L&I when he saw the condition of the property, but said he was just told to call the Fire Department.

"I literally woke up in the middle of the night because I was so concerned about it," Tice said. "My wife walked by there all the time with our infant daughter."

The building was finally demolished on March 22 - a day after the Daily News visited the property, emailed photos to L&I and wrote about Kelly's experience. L&I said it had planned to demolish the building at a later date.

"I do recognize why it would be so hard to keep up with all of these properties," Tice said. "But when it's brought to their attention with a system they themselves developed, I don't know why it would take so long to have the problem addressed."

Williams said he sent a departmentwide memo after reading about Kelly's experience, reminding staffers that L&I is supposed to field calls about dangerous properties, not refer them to 9-1-1.

Both Williams and the RDA's Abernathy say they hope the creation earlier this year of the city's first Land Bank will help alleviate the enormous backlog of vacant and dangerous properties.

"There's no silver bullet," Abernathy said. "But the Land Bank should allow us to move some of these properties quickly and efficiently. We don't want to hold on to them."

Abernathy said the Redevelopment Authority is open to turning some abandoned houses and lots into community gardens and parks, but that approach won't solve all of the city's dangerous property woes.

Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, chairwoman of City Council's L&I Committee, said the city should start placing liens on the personal residences of blighted property owners, even if they live outside the city. She has also suggested an insurance system that would enable the city to recoup money if it has to demolish or repair a privately owned building.

"We've made it inexpensive for people to hold on to properties," Sanchez said.

Charles Cook, a construction-management expert at Drexel University, said the city needs to develop a comprehensive, long-term plan to hold owners accountable for their properties before they collapse or need to be demolished. Without that, he said, someone is likely to get killed or injured and L&I demolition crews will continue scrambling from one house to another while doing little to reduce future blight.

"Neighborhoods can rise, and then they can fall," Cook said. "It's a multifaceted problem that's not going to be solved by simply throwing money at it. We need to put the best minds together, and let's not look for who's at fault. Let's look for a solution."