Abandoned buildings plague residents while city organizations work toward improvement

Residents of the 4000 block of North Darien Street are like a family.

Whether it’s giving the kids a safe place to play after school or forcing thugs and drug dealers off the block, the residents are constantly battling negative elements to improve the quality of life in their Hunting Park neighborhood.

Yet, for all their efforts, the presence of vacant or abandoned housing creates a problem that never ceases to disappear.

“These buildings here have been abandoned at least 10 years,” said Charles Langley, a pastor at Mt. Zion II. “You can see them falling apart, so if they start to crumble and fall that makes things even worse.”

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Langley, who also works as a therapeutic aide for children with autism in local schools, has lived on Darien Street for 15 years. The buildings at 4052 and 4054 N. Darien St. that sit next to Langley’s home have been abandoned for more than a decade creating what he described as a “magnet of negativity” that not only creates an eyesore, but also a hazard to the health and wellness of residents his block.

“We were all afraid that if a fire started the whole block would go up,” Langley said. “One of the houses actually ended up having a fire about 10 years ago. But by the grace of God nothing happened to the rest of the houses. The whole street could be gone.”

Fears of abandoned building fires have escalated in recent weeks in light of the recent five-alarm fire that took place in an abandoned warehouse in Kensington that took the lives of two firemen.

Maura Kennedy, director of initiatives at the Department of Licenses and Inspections, said that it is always concerned with fire safety in abandoned properties. L&I had previously reached an agreement with the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia and the Tenant Union Representative Network on a certificate of rental stability in October 2011, which requires owners of properties to confirm fire safety guidelines before changing tenants.

“[Fire safety] is a constant and ongoing focus of the department,” Kennedy said.

Refuse in the backyard of the abandoned properties on Darien Street also has been an issue. The amount of trash was wildly out of control in recent years, Langley said. During one recent summer a foul odor coming from the houses was so bad Langley said his daughter could not even open her window on the back of his house.

“When we went back and looked to see where [the smell] was coming from, we found a dead pit bull,” Langley said.

Langley said he made repeated calls to city officials to do something about the vacant properties, but nothing was done for years.

“If you don’t make a lot of noise, which it shouldn’t take because we work hard here and pay taxes here, nothing really happens,” Langley said. “It’s disheartening when the city just doesn’t listen.

There are also several abandoned homes on the 3800 block of 10th Street that are completely desolate. The facades of the houses are destroyed, with the wooden framing exposed and trash strewn about. The structures have been abandoned for nearly 15 years and are scheduled to be demolished, said Denise Scott, 55, who has lived on the block her entire life.

Scott also said that a dead body was found in an abandoned building right next to her own home.

“It’s horrible and I’m disgusted by [the lack of response],” Scott said. “A couple people came by a few years back and they said they owned it, but nothing ever got done.”

Mayra Camacho, 44, who also resides on the street, said she fears for pedestrians’ safety.

“You have kids running around here and playing in the summer and anything could fall on them,” Camacho said. “Even when I park my car here I worry about something collapsing and falling down.”

With 25,000 abandoned structures in Philadelphia, the problem is not unique to Hunting Park. But every resident in the area has an opinion about the dilapidated structures that plague property values and their quality of life, placing a problem that faces the whole city in perspective.

City Organizations Attempt to Resolve Issue

While these ignored structures are beyond a nuisance to residents, L&I is faced with the unenviable task of organizing all the vacant properties in the city, finding the appropriate owners and forcing them to either fix the buildings or finding the appropriate purchaser for the property.

Once a property has been reported and placed in violation, it is placed in one of three categories: unoccupied, unsafe or imminently dangerous, Kennedy said.

As soon as that first violation is cited, the property is fined $300 for each open window and door per day. The fines accrue for roughly three months, depending on the circumstance, and then the matter is taken to the courts.

If the owner takes care of the property and fixes the violations, some or all of the fines can be reduced.

“Our goal is compliance [with the property owners],” Kennedy said. “We would much rather have things taken care of with the properties, so if they work with us we can reduce the fines.”

In previous years, some property owners facing violations would simply take the fines. Since they do not live at the residence, they believe they can pay the money at a later date, Kennedy said.

To hold property owners more accountable, state legislators passed the Neighborhood Blight and Reclamation Act, or Act 90, in 2010. The act allows court action not only against the building, but also against the owner’s assets. Furthermore, the property owner can be denied certain permits and approvals for additional properties if another one of their structures is in serious violation, according to Pennsylvania Works.

“Previously, fines just sat with the properties,” Kennedy said. “If you didn’t live at the property, you could just leave the fine alone. Now, you can’t wait till down the road.

“[Property owners] are causing harm to the neighbors of these houses, so we are going to cause harm to their assets–to their bank account, their homes– something to hold them accountable.”

Kennedy stressed that any residents who are affected by vacant housing should call and let the department know, and if there are any other issues, alert the police immediately.

“Let us know where these abandoned houses are,” Kennedy said. “If you see the same building deteriorate more, call again, you have to let us know. And if you see squatters or anything like that, call 911. That is a police matter and they will deal with it appropriately.”

Hunting Park residents like Langley often become tired of waiting for city action. He said he believes prospective buyers could come in and make the properties livable again.

“Someone definitely would have purchased these buildings from the city [in my opinion] and fixed them up,” Langley said.

Jeanette Lopez, who also lives on Darien Street, said she has seen other houses on the block resurrected by their owners and said she wonders why the city doesn’t do the same.

“My neighbor across the street, his house used to be [awful],” Lopez said. “It used to be so bad, it smelled like urine, absolutely awful. Then the owners [of the building] came by with these big containers and cleaned out the whole house. We thought it had to be demolished. We thought it was unlivable. If they can do that, why can’t they do that with the other buildings?”

In reality, some of the abandoned properties in the area are already for sale, including the two properties next to Langley’s home.

But purchasing these properties becomes another matter all together.

Roughly half of the estimated vacant or abandoned building throughout Philadelphia are currently controlled by various city and private entities: the Philadelphia Housing Authority, Department of Public Property, Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.

A list of all 12,749 properties controlled by the entities can be found on the redevelopment authority’s website.

However, the buyer must meet an array of qualifications that vary depending on what entity he or she is purchasing from, which makes buying one of the properties even more difficult.

According to the website, “Through a series of Request for Qualifications the [redevelopment authority] will select qualified developers (both for and non-profit) who will acquire the foreclosed homes, renovate and sell them to credit worthy owner occupants.” The purchase of general properties also must be approved by City Council and the City Planning Commission.

Paul Chrystie, director of communications in the Office of Housing and Community Development, said that he was not able to provide specific details on the properties on Darien Street, but they are for sale.

“In general, many city-owned properties are available for sale, including these two,” Chrystie said. “Currently, a prospective purchaser would apply to the public entity that owns the parcel. Shortly, a more comprehensive and transparent process will be implemented, which we expect will help bring properties back into productive use sooner.”

Cleaning Up Someone Else’s Mess

L&I recently cleaned out and boarded up the windows and doors of the two houses next to Langley’s residence on Darien Street. While it took almost a decade for something to be done with the properties, Langley said he is glad something finally happened.

“It’s a sense of relief that the city is addressing the problem,” Langley said. “I would much rather see someone living here then a squatter waiting to take the boards off. I’d much rather have a neighbor paying taxes than these eyesores.”

Rehabilitating thousands of abandoned properties across Philadelphia is not something that is going to happen over night, Kennedy said.

“I think this is a problem that is 70 years in the making,” Kennedy said. “In that time, we have lost half a million people in the city. A lot of people have left Philadelphia in the past. But our population is growing again. It’s a vibrant, growing city and we are doing what we can to manage all this. We are working diligently to make this city better. It’s not something that’s going to be fixed in two or three years. It is going to take a while.”

While the properties are still unoccupied, the residents of Darien Street decided they were tired of looking at the boarded-up properties. They painted the front of the abandoned homes and allow the children to put their own artwork where doors and windows should be.

The front of one of the abandoned properties reads, “We are the children of Darien Street.”

As a resident of Darien Street for 19 years, Lopez said she would do whatever it takes to make her street a better place to live.

“It was dirty on the block in front of those abandoned houses,” Lopez said. “We figured if we can’t do anything, we might as well make it look prettier.”

Tim Johnson and Kriston Bethel are Temple University students. Philadelphia Neighborhoods, a NewsWorks content partner, is an initiative of the Temple Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab.

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