5 ways L&I has become a better agency in three years, says city rep

If you had a bad experience in the past with the city’s once notorious Licenses and Inspections department, it’s time to give it another shot.

So went the address Thursday night from a representative of the city agency charged with enforcing its zoning code and related statutes.

“Let’s be real: things were bad,” said Maura Kennedy, the L&I director of strategic initiatives, of the agency before current Commissioner Fran Burns came on. “But we’ve worked very hard to get things in order in the past three years, and we want you to give us another try.”

Kennedy, who was speaking at the Frankford Civic Association meeting, outlined how her agency has changed and, along the way, took questions on a longstanding neighborhood beef with L&I over recovery homes.

One of the newest initiatives from L&I, which Kennedy was there to describe, is something of a blight court.

Womencare: group seeks support for maternity programs in the Northeast

The loss of maternity facilities in and around the Northeast has left expectant mothers “without a real choice near their homes to welcome their children into the world,” said Vivan Lowenstein, the president of Womencare, a new Jenkintown-based nonprofit trying to reverse the trend. It’s a big, growing problem, she added.

“Women aren’t complaining enough,” she said at the Frankford Civic Association meeting. Some 5,000 births happen annually in the Northeast, she said her group estimates, and those mothers should demand a better, closer place to be cared for, she said.

The easiest thing would be for existing large hospitals, like Aria Frankford, to open their now-shuttered maternity wings, considering “many women go to emergency rooms expecting to be taken care of,” but because of malpractice concerns, rising costs and falling profits, “that is very unlikely.”

“You can’t profit on healthy women,” Rosenthal said, noting a third of births of women nationally happen C-sections, though 10 percent is considered the norm.

The options left for women in Frankford are to travel west to Albert Einstein or Temple University Hospital, or “very far north” to St Mary’s in Bucks County, Rosenthal said. She cited the Booth Medical Center formerly on City Line Avenue as a once successful program.

To solve the problem, the group, made up mostly of women from the Northeast, is seeking $3 million in funding to launch a maternity center or related pre-natal and GYN facility in this part of the city.

The agency is, as it always has, levying fines against the owners of seemingly abandoned or otherwise vacant properties that are attracting crime and trash, but now it’s following up with aggressive legal action, seeking liens on a “deadbeat owner’s personal property.” The goal is to push the property to a sheriff’s sale or to encourage the owners to improve the property, something Kennedy says is happening with enough frequency that the agency is posting before and after photos on its new Facebook page.

Blight court is just the newest, most public-facing initiative from an agency on the move, Kennedy said.

Since July 2008 when Burns was given the job, Kennedy added that a variety of big changes have taken place at L&I, including the following five:

1. Eliminated a backlog of 38,000 home inspections.

2. Reduced the average wait time at the Municipal Services Building concourse near City Hall from 90 minutes to 15 minutes.

3. Consolidated the number of available required city licenses from more than 130 to fewer than 40.

4. Established a pathway to take non-compliant property owners to court. Now, following two non-responsive inspections, one of a pair of full-time L&I attorneys will be able to push for action or further fines in small claims court.

5. Reduced cost of demolitions, allowing the agency to continue to remove dangerous, blighted buildings at a similar rate despite a 30 percent drop in department budget.

That’s not to say the night was exclusively a congratulatory affair.

Before Kennedy was even introduced, a familiar refrain came bounding back.

As with just about any Frankford Civic meeting for the past three years or more, the round-about finger pointing, hand-wringing and testimony-calling on the topic of recovery homes appeared.

And, as has often been the case, the alleged misdeeds and in-actions of the city agency boogie man of choice — L&I — escaped the lips of more than one of the 12 residents seated in the Frankford Hospital conference room.

“Well, you’re in luck,” interrupted civic zoning board official Pete Specos, “because this nice young lady is from L&I.”

Not that that won Kennedy much attention. It was a full 10 minutes before the conversation was reigned in enough for Kennedy to address the issue of recovery and, in short, the reply amounted to a deferment to the point of lack of authority.

“Any three former addicts living together doesn’t make a recovery house. Nobody wants L&I defining what is a family, what is a group, what is a recovery home,” Kennedy said. “Until there is a clear, legal distinction for what a recovery home is and what it isn’t, there’s not much more we can do as an agency.”

Below, watch video Kennedy talk about L&I needing more enforcement authority to impact recovery homes.

Late-night hours, quickly shifting residents, unorthodox business methods, few clear code violations and simple property owner avoidance have always made it difficult for L&I’s limited compliance staff to do much of anything about recovery homes, Kennedy said. Though she added that it isn’t always obvious when fines are being levied for non-compliance in other ways.

“We can’t get into the recovery home business because, from our perspective as an agency, we don’t know what they are,” she added.

Jason Dawkins, a representative of Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez, beat the drum of community collaboration first, in doing things like collective property purchases, detailed tracking of illegal operations and partnership with city officials.

“What you accept in your neighborhood, is what you’ll get in your neighborhood.” he said.

Also at the meeting:

Frankford Avenue, between the Church and Bridge streets, will be getting the treatment from the famed Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, thanks to funding provided by the office of Councilwoman Sanchez’s office.

“This is 18 blocks, so it’s a big space. We won’t do 18 murals, but even four will take a lot of time. Whatever the case, this will be about improving the Frankford corridor,” she said.

Starting with meetings Oct. 5 and Oct. 13th, held at Denby’s Sweet Sensations at 4428 Frankford Ave., the Mural Arts Program will seek neighborhood input about how the murals could best represent Frankford, said Project Manager Netanel Portier.

The lead artist will be Cesar Viveros. Read about his work on the project in this Northeast Times story.

The project will run concurrently with funding for new street lights, new street signs and additional cleaning to the corridor, said Sanchez representative Jason Dawkins.

By November, the neighborhood meetings, including youth outreach, will result in draft sketches, to be followed by designs in January, production in early spring and installations soon after, Portier said.

Also at the meeting:

Kevin Welsh, described as a long-time Frankford Civic Association member and a former 23rd committeeman, has died, announced Pete Specos. A memorial service is being held Saturday at 10 a.m. inside Mater Dolorosa Church at the corner of Paul and Ruan streets.

A zoning request was made for a storage facility on the 4600-block of Wittman, near Plum that would house snow plow and tools.

Charlene Walker asked about the process of obtaining zoning to open a childcare facility at her home.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal