In a two-story twin home on East York Street in Kensington, Nancy Lewis raised her family and cared for her mother at the end of her life. She hopes to spend the rest of her life in the home, where she’s lived for 51 years. But construction on the other side of her shared wall jeopardizes her plan.
Where her twin home’s mirror image used to be, a new residence under construction towers more than a story above hers. A newly exposed wall on the back of her home has not been weatherized. Lewis can smell gasoline from generators and mildew in her kitchen. Water seeps into the basement every time it rains. Construction caused a crack in her bathroom. Noise shakes Lewis awake in the mornings.
She doesn’t know when contractors will be working, what work will be done, or how that work may damage her house.
“The way that construction next door has impacted my home turned my life upside down,” Lewis, 72, said in a statement read by her neighbor, who said the ordeal has been “traumatizing” for Lewis.
Lewis stood outside her house Friday afternoon with a group of neighbors, advocates, and state representatives to highlight the plight of homeowners living through the city’s construction boom and the increase in accidents and damage to adjoining properties that have followed. They hope to garner support for a package of bills introduced in the Pennsylvania House this month that could help residents in similar situations across the city and the state.
“If nothing else, these past 18 months have shown us how important it is to have a good, safe home where you can be, work, and live,” said State Rep. Mary Isaacson (D., Phila.), a cosponsor of the bills. “And not be terrorized by somebody else trying to make a profit and cutting corners.”
One bill would require Pennsylvania’s Department of Labor and Industry to compile a list of rights and resources meant to protect neighboring property owners called the Adjacent Neighbors’ Bill of Rights. Developers would need to mail a copy of the pamphlet to adjacent homeowners. Most homeowners don’t know what to do, what they’re entitled to, or who to call when they have concerns about nearby construction. Neighbors have formed ad hoc groups such as the Riverwards L+I Coalition based in the Fishtown area and Build Like You Live Here in Kensington to advocate for each other and share information.
Legislation also aims to prevent amateur house flippers from calling themselves homeowners to avoid registering as contractors. Under the bill, anyone performing home improvements would either be a contractor or a property owner who lives in the home for at least one year after construction.
State Rep. Joseph Hohenstein (D., Phila.), the prime sponsor of the package of bills, said his hope is that the requirement will professionalize home flipping and change the perspective of flippers who would have to live in the property they constructed. The end result, he hopes, is a higher-quality property that better fits with the neighborhood.
Another bill would require code enforcement officers to be taught about illegal construction practices and require residential building code inspectors to be taught the proper installation of stucco. Legislation also would require builders of new construction to repair construction defects that appear within the first two years for free.
Homeowner Megan Murray said she wished similar legislation existed when she bought her condo in Olde Kensington in 2017. During her first year there, she discovered that her home’s plumbing and electrical systems were faulty. Sewage backed up into her home. A six-foot-long crack appeared in a foundation wall.
An engineer is assessing the condo building to tell residents what other work needs to be done. Now, a couple of inches of rain mean she’ll find water in her condo. She can’t sell her home, and lawyers told her fighting the builder would take at least a few years.
“Four years later, I cannot live in half of my house,” Murray said. “I cannot keep anything on the floor from June to October. Not to mention the anxiety I get when rain’s in the forecast, especially if I see a flash flood warning. I cancel my plans and prepare for a night of cleanup.”
Hohenstein said City Council members are considering introducing similar legislation at the city level.
In July, Mayor Jim Kenney signed into law Council legislation aimed at protecting residents from construction accidents by ensuring excavation work is done safely by qualified contractors and that neighboring property owners are better informed about construction work. Beginning Jan. 1, 2023, the city will require excavation licenses, separate permits for most contractors who dig deeper than five feet underground, and inspections of adjoining properties prior to construction work.
Standing in front of Lewis’ home in Kensington on Friday, Hohenstein said his bills are about developers being good neighbors and protecting people’s largest asset.
“When we talk about home, we talk about heart,” he said. “And we need to recognize that each individual home, each individual beating heart in a neighborhood makes up the collective heart of that neighborhood, of our city.”
This story has been updated to correct the date the Council bill takes effect.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.