Michael Froehlich was getting so sick of seeing the "We Buy Houses" signs desecrating his West Philadelphia neighborhood he decided to offer a bounty for them — $1 for every one dropped off at his house, up to $200.
It took less than 48 hours to hit his limit.
"Everyone who came by said they already do this anyway," Froehlich, 42, said Monday. "They're motivated by the sense that investors are coming into their neighborhoods and taking advantage of longtime residents and that this is sort of a very tangible and tactile way of doing something about it. And then they're also like, 'Thanks for grocery money.' "
Neighbors enthusiastically embraced the exercise — posting on Facebook strategies for taking down the hard-to-reach signs (extendable tree trimmers, paint rollers, and rope), and sharing ideas for how to repurpose them (protest signs, "Philly monster trash Halloween costume").
And then one neighbor volunteered $200 for a second collection, which continues.
Nobody likes how the signs look, said Froehlich, who works at Community Legal Services, but more important, they disparage the reputation of a community and prey on people facing financial insecurity.
As an attorney who represents homeowners going through mortgage and tax foreclosure, Froehlich has seen people in dire need of money sell fast only to realize later the house could have earned about four times as much — if they'd consulted a Realtor.
"I have no problem with any homeowner in gentrifying neighborhoods selling their house and cashing out, but what really bothers me is when longtime homeowners get less money than what they're actually worth because they're misled by these folks," he said.
The so-called bandit signs — illegally posted on public utility poles or public property — have long been an issue in Philadelphia. The fine for posting is $50, but perpetrators are rarely caught, said Pat O'Donnell, right-of-way manager for the Streets Department, as the phone numbers listed often go directly to voicemail or are connected to prepaid cellphones. O'Donnell said this month that the best thing neighbors can do is tear them down themselves.
Froehlich isn't the first resident to take the problematic signs into his own hands. (Literally: He's stacked up 228 in his living room.)
Christopher Sawyer of Kensington started the Bandit Project 10 years ago to educate residents that the signs are illegal and encourage neighbors to take them down. As part of his campaign, he held a Kindle giveaway contest for the neighbor who collected the most signs. He also robo-called the numbers before it got to be too expensive.
The messages, "Any House, Any Condition" or "Fast Ca$h for your house," frequently plastered around rapidly changing neighborhoods, make homes, and by extension, homeowners, sound easily expendable, Sawyer said.
It's not just signs. Fliers dropped off in mailboxes can take an even more vulgar tone. A flier that circulated around Germantown last week from Posimo Properties featured an idyllic block of homes but read, "Sell Your S–!" bordered by two smiling poop emojis.
The bandit signs have become such a familiar image of negative neighborhood change they're part of an exhibit focused on gentrification at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
A wall lined with about 100 signs pulled from different neighborhoods in the city is part of the Philadelphia Assembled project now on display at the Perelman Building. If you call the numbers on them, you'll hear taped interviews with Point Breeze neighbors about how the signs impact their community, or you can leave a message and record your own.
Jorge Galvan, 32, one of the artists who created the display, wants to have a workshop to reinvent the signs before the exhibit closes.
"This came out of not knowing what to do about them and being pretty upset about their existence in the neighborhood," said Galvan, who lives in Brewertyown. "Our neighbors seem pretty attacked, between the signs and stuff in the mail. It's aggressive, it's definitely not building community, so I don't think we are proposing a solution but encouraging people to take them down. Anything is better than seeing them out on the poles."
Froehlich has an art project idea of his own. Perhaps his 8-year-old daughter can do something with the brightly colored boards piled up in her living room. He figures: What better way to reclaim the signs he sees as instruments of destruction than to build something?
"It'd be funny to make her a playhouse out of the signs," Froehlich said. "I told her, if she comes up with the design, I'd build it."