In between budget negotiations, Council passes bill requiring seals for vacant buildings

City Council continued to work toward a decision on the Mayor’s proposal to switch to a property tax system based on market values Thursday morning, but took time out to deal with the regular legislative calendar as well.

Among the items Council passed was a bill introduced by Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez which requires owners of vacant buildings to seal openings with industrial-strength seals. The bill was introduced in March and amended twice before finally passing unanimously on Thursday.

The bill requires owners of Large Vacant Commercial or Industrial Properties (LVCIPs) or Foreclosed Vacant Residential Property (FVRPs) to keep windows, doors, and other openings in good repair.  It prescribes the type of materials that must be used for seals, and for signs bearing the name and address of the owner and property manager.

The bill changes portions of the Property Maintenance Code. One section now reads, “A vacant structure deemed unsafe … for failure to secure it against entry shall be sealed with commercial-quality, 14 gauge, rust-proof steel security panels or doors, or such other materials deemed by the Department to provide an equivalent level of protection considering the specific characteristics of a property and its location.”

Kensington-based anti-blight activist Christopher Sawyer testified in support of the bill at Thursday’s Council meeting, and drew a connection between vacant property and the budget trouble. He said Sánchez’s bill would take the City a step closer to holding vacant property owners accountable for the condition of their buildings.

““We know that some structures are ticking time bombs that can put entire blocks and countless lives at risk in a matter of moments,” said Councilwoman Sánchez in a statement. “Investing in effective prevention will ultimately save us much greater costs later.” 

Like other vacant land legislation, Sánchez’s bill will live or die by L&I’s enforcement. On Friday morning, L&I spokeswoman Maura Kennedy briefly addressed some questions about that enforcement via Twitter.

The bill will take effect in thirty days.

Councilwoman Sánchez also amended her bill which rezones portions of Norris Square from R10 to R10-A. Last week, Sánchez told PlanPhilly that she planned to change the effective date of the rezoning bill to the same as that of the zoning code, August 22, to give Norris Square residents time to pull permits and bring multi-unit residences into compliance. Some residents had worried that the new zoning designation would make their already existing multi-family homes illegal.

Opposition to the change in zoning designation has receded since Sánchez has apparently been working on a deal with Norris Square Civic Association to make new plans for St. Boniface. The zoning bill would have made NSCA’s plans for 15 co-op units at the site unfeasible. Sánchez said the new plans include 8 single-family homes at St. Boniface, and scattered infill elsewhere in the neighborhood.

Council members appeared distracted while voting on bills and resolutions during Thursday’s meeting. After the meeting was recessed, Council President Clarke said it would begin again to consider AVI and the budget around three o’clock. Later that evening, Council made a deal that will delay the switch to AVI for one year, and provide $40 million for the school district through an increase in the real estate and use-and-occupancy taxes.

Contact the reporter at and follow him on Twitter @jaredbrey

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

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