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After collapsed buildings and damaged homes, Philly strengthens construction oversight

“We need the message sent that if you exceed the scope of the permit, if you knowingly, willingly put lives at risk, we’re going to ask the DA’s office for an investigation,” L&I Commissioner David Perri said.

In February 2019, two Fishtown properties collapsed after a team of construction workers was working without proper permits inside one of the homes. A family living inside the home next door had to rush to evacuate.
In February 2019, two Fishtown properties collapsed after a team of construction workers was working without proper permits inside one of the homes. A family living inside the home next door had to rush to evacuate.Read moreHandout

As Philadelphia’s unprecedented building boom continues, the Department of Licenses and Inspections is instituting new regulations it hopes will curb a growing number of construction accidents.

In response to recent building collapses and reports of property damage, the department is strengthening its permitting requirements, inspection protocols, and educational campaigns to try to send a "message” to developers and contractors who have knowingly or accidentally skirted the law.

In the last two years alone, Philadelphia has seen several examples of residents forced to flee their homes due to unsafe construction next door. Contractors have been trapped — even killed — as bricks and walls have tumbled. Construction sites have been left unsecured. Fences and scaffolding have invaded sidewalks. At least one resident has begun calling the local development landscape “construction destruction."

Since the local housing recovery began in 2012, the Philadelphia market has experienced a remarkable upsurge, one that has breathed new life into some neighborhoods, attracted taxpaying residents, and eliminated a number of the vacant buildings that have dotted city streets. Compared with nearby markets, including New York City and Washington, Philadelphia continues to have more affordably priced land and properties, which entices local and out-of-town investors to redevelop or build anew.

Yet Philadelphia also has seen glimpses of the darker side of a development boom — a problem that L&I Commissioner David Perri says is caused by a combination of excessive rainfall, inexperienced contractors, “the mentality of get-rich-quick," and a city zoning code that he alleges “encourages teardowns.”

“We have so much more construction activity that there are now so many more opportunities for people to step on each others’ toes and for accidents to occur,” Perri said Thursday. “The incentive now for a builder to go in and do a teardown and build new in the middle of a block ... it’s causing issues that hadn’t previously existed."

In response to the recent rash of construction mishaps, Perri said the city began strategizing ways to bolster construction site safety. Several initiatives have been implemented, and the department is focused on others Perri said would likely be in place in the spring.

The department is also in the initial stages of discussing more long-term goals, Perri said, ones that would likely require legislative or zoning changes.

One of the most pressing issues facing Philadelphia is the growing trend of developers choosing to build into the ground. With the city’s zoning code capping the height of rowhouses at 38 feet in most areas, developers — seeking to sell bigger and more expensive homes — are digging basements. But Philadelphia’s rowhouse ecosystem is fragile, with century-old homes that often sit on rubble foundations in tightly packed blocks. It’s not difficult, observers say, for one small mishap to bring walls tumbling down.

As a result, since Aug. 1, L&I has been requiring developers and contractors to hire licensed engineers to monitor construction sites that have excavation plans. If a crew is planning to dig less than three feet away from a neighboring property, or more than three feet into the ground, they must have an engineer present to watch the operation.

» READ MORE: L&I seeks to add inspections to new homes after water damage complaints across Philadelphia

That kind of oversight might have helped the Klenks of Fishtown, who lost their home in February after a crew was working without proper permits while excavating a basement in the building next door. In the process, L&I determined, the crew destroyed the shared foundation wall, shaking the Klenks’ longtime home, and separating the stairs from the wall. Four people inside the Klenk home — including 94-year-old owner Clovena — managed to get out. Ultimately, however, L&I ruled that both homes needed to be razed.

L&I referred the Klenk case to the District Attorney’s Office — one of three incidents that have been referred to date. Perri declined to name the other two.

“We need the message sent that if you exceed the scope of the permit, if you knowingly, willingly, put lives at risk, we’re going to ask the DA’s Office for an investigation,” Perri said.

As a response to accidents such as the one at the Klenks’ home, L&I also strengthened requirements last month for obtaining the city’s “EZ Alteration” permits, which historically contractors had been able to obtain without submitting plans for common projects like roof replacements. Although alterations that affect a property’s structure — such as digging a basement — have never been allowed with an “EZ” permit, the city has increasingly seen contractors obtain them and then purposefully take on more complicated projects, Perri said. As a result, since Oct. 1 L&I has started requiring applicants who do not own and occupy a property to submit plans proving that the construction work will be nonstructural.

Perri said L&I also has hired a quality-control inspector, whose job is to patrol neighborhoods and monitor tips about dangerous construction.

The department also plans to tackle bigger and broader changes, Perri said, and hopes by the spring to create a separate license for contractors doing excavation. Those excavators would be required to take an exam, attend training, and have a higher level of insurance. He said the city is even having preliminary conversations about banning basement digging in some areas.

That’s not the only thing Perri would like to prohibit, he said: L&I is considering banning demolition of only one side of a twin.

“Twin houses rely on each other for structural support, and we should not be allowing a house that was built with the intention of having support ... to then become a structure on its own,” he said. Such a ban would likely require a City Council ordinance.

City and state legislation is something that L&I has its eyes on, Perri said, and he would eventually like to see a fund set up to provide legal counsel for low- and moderate-income property owners whose homes are damaged by nearby construction. He said that program could resemble the right-to-counsel bill that recently passed out of a City Council committee, giving free legal aid to low-income tenants facing eviction.

Until then, Perri said, L&I is focused on educating residents about what constitutes illegal or dangerous construction — and how they can report it to officials. Fliers about the dangers of basement excavations will be sent out along with water bills to residents in December.

“The residential construction boom will evaporate unless builders and contractors start protecting the urban fabric that helps make Philadelphia’s ‘hot’ neighborhoods so attractive,” Perri said. “If using shoddy building practices to maximize profit at the community’s expense is your business model, you are in the wrong business.”