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City will pay nonprofits up to $10,000 to take down bandit signs

The city will pay 40 nonprofit groups that register 50 cents per sign, up to $250 per group.

Some of the 200+ ‘bandit signs’ Michael Froehlich collected after offering neighbors $1 per sign. The city is launching its own bounty program.
Some of the 200+ ‘bandit signs’ Michael Froehlich collected after offering neighbors $1 per sign. The city is launching its own bounty program.Read moreMICHAEL FROELICH / Handout

In an attempt to cleanse the city of "We Buy Houses" and other illegally posted signs, Philadelphia is launching a bounty program.

It's not exactly a new idea. Michael Froehlich, a West Philadelphia resident, has been paying neighbors $1 per sign, out of pocket, to pull down the eyesores since October. This is the first time the city has taken such a step.

The city will pay 40 nonprofit groups that sign up for the program 50 cents per sign, up to $250 per group. If every group hits its maximum, 20,000 signs would come down across the city.

"Aside from aesthetics, it's a social justice issue," said Nic Esposito, director of the city's Zero Waste and Litter Initiative. "They put them up where there's high rates of foreclosure. There is a predatory nature to this."

Esposito said he's met with concert promoters to warn them about illegal posters plastered around town and to consider designating certain spots as community message boards.

"It's a little discouraging to see a lot of concert venues I go to or friends I have whose band posters are up illegally," Esposito said. "But we need to be able to work with legitimate businesses to let them know this is wrong and we should do better."

The bandit sign brigade's take-down blitz will run from June 1 through 15.

City officials say they hope the groups use the funds toward neighborhood cleanups or supplies. Complaints about litter in Philadelphia have more than tripled since the city set up its quality-of-life hotline, 311, a decade ago. More than 50,000 people submitted litter-related complaints last year.

Posting signs in the public right of way, on the street or sidewalk, is illegal in Philadelphia. Pat O'Donnell, right-of-way manager for the Streets Department, said in October that he had seen an increase over the last seven years, perhaps driven by development and gentrification in certain neighborhoods.

The penalty for posting is $300 per sign for the first offense and up to $2,000 per sign for the second offense, but it's incredibly difficult to catch perpetrators. We tried calling phone numbers on the signs last year and came up largely empty on the identities of those behind the plastering of the signs.

The city will pay for fliers stapled to telephone poles as well as the thicker plastic boards typically advertising cash for homes. Groups can use their discretion on what to take down.

Froehlich registered his local neighborhood group, Cedar Park Neighbors, for the bandit brigade. He said his team would prioritize signs targeting homeowners and bypass yard sale, lost dog, or house party signs.

As someone who's been collecting the signs over the last six months (he has 1,000 stacked up in his basement), he knows they'll be back and hopes the city steps up its enforcement efforts.

"They won't stay down forever," Froehlich said, "but this is a triple win. It's going to help vulnerable homeowners who hopefully won't be as liable to getting ripped off. It will be a win for neighbors who hate looking at these signs, and it'll be a win for community organizations who will get a little money to collect the signs."