City blight unit lauded, decimated

Since 2011, an innovative new anti-blight unit in the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections has used data and strategic enforcement to prop up property values and speed redevelopment in transitional neighborhoods across the city.

Though modest in scope, the effort has been a smashing success, according to a new statistical analysis from The Reinvestment Fund. Property values on targeted blocks have increased by as much as $74 million, tax delinquency has slightly declined, and individual homeowners gained as much as 32 percent of additional equity in their homes, when compared to control blocks.

But there’s a troubling wrinkle.

Since last summer, the Vacant Strategy Unit, as it is called, has been decimated by personnel departures and reassignments, leaving the unit less capable of executing its initiative and ill-equipped to develop new blight-fighting tactics.

The unit has not been disbanded, but its ranks have dwindled. What was once an entity with a policy and administrative staff of five plus two inspectors now has only one inspector and a single manager who doubles as the department’s press officer.

The staff reductions raise questions about Licenses and Inspection’s commitment to its blight fighting mission and threaten a return to an old L&I model where the department’s limited enforcement resources were deployed almost exclusively in response to complaints, instead of being used proactively and strategically to spur redevelopment.

Licenses and Inspections spokeswoman Rebecca Swanson – who is now also the sole administrator of the vacancy unit – confirmed the staff reductions, but said the moves did not signal any long-term retreat from the new strategy.

“I wouldn’t call it disinvesting,” Swanson said. “There’s been a temporary reduction of staff.”

Swanson attributed the unit’s attrition to personnel moves – promotions, transfers and the like – and the department’s intense focus on building safety in the wake of the fatal Market Street collapse last June.

L&I has only about 60 inspectors within its operations division. It is their job to keep watch over about 580,000 parcels citywide. Triage is a permanent fact of life for the department.

That’s historically meant the department’s inspectors respond to phoned-in resident complaints and City Council requests and not much else.

Many of the complaints are entirely valid, and callers routinely alert the department to critical safety problems it would otherwise be unaware of. But the department also responds to legions of complaints that are unfounded or trivial, lodged by feuding neighbors, tenants with minor grievances against their landlords, and so on.

At best, the approach is scattershot and uneven, with enforcement resources flowing disproportionately to those who complain the loudest.

Anti-blight advocates have for years called on L&I to adjust its approach and divert more inspection resources to strategic enforcement. This could mean intensive code crackdowns on a once stable neighborhood now beginning to decline, or a focus on improving communities where redevelopment could be spurred by increased code compliance.

The Vacant Strategy Unit represented a step in this direction.

The effort began in October 2011 with some intensive data analysis and research. The unit compiled a list of 25,000 vacant properties for inspection, and tracked down valid contact information for the owners of the lots. That alone was unusual: L&I citations and court actions are routinely dismissed because the listed addresses for the property owners are invalid.

From there, the unit prioritized its targets, focusing enforcement on property owners with large portfolios of blighted and vacant buildings and land, and on relatively healthy blocks throughout the city that are threatened by a handful of vacant structures.

Two little-used enforcement tools were deployed at scale for the first time: Act 90, a 2010 law which gives the city the right to go after the private property (such as the personal homes) of landlords who own blighted land and buildings, and an ordinance that slaps huge fines on property owners with missing or boarded up doors and windows on blocks that are 80 percent occupied or better.

To ensure the cases received ample court time, they were funneled through a designated “blight court,” run by Judge Bradley Moss of the Common Pleas Court.

The vacancy unit has also cooperated with the city’s Revenue Department to prioritize nuisance properties for tax sale at sheriff auctions. There is significant overlap between blighted properties and tax delinquent ones.

Taken together, the measures employed by the unit have had a profound impact on those neighborhoods where enforcement was concentrated, according to the TRF study, which was first reported by Newsworks. In addition to the property value increases, the study found that the Vacancy Strategy Unit generated an additional $2.34 million in transfer tax revenue for the city. That’s on top of the $1.1 million in permit fees, fines and judgments the program has collected directly.

“It’s an example of exactly what we want,” said Liz Hersh, executive director of the non-profit Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania. “This shows that the city has tools that really do work, and they know how to use them. To me, it’s a no brainer.”

For a lot anti-blight advocates, the Vacancy Strategy Unit represents the first real sign of new thinking within the city’s code enforcement program, which is why the staffing reductions have activists worried about the city’s intentions.

Licenses and Inspections Commissioner Carlton Williams was not available for comment on Friday, Swanson said, but she expects he will address the matter at a press conference on Thursday when the results of the TRF analysis will be formally released.

Swanson stressed that the department’s inspectors were now fully trained on the strategy and incorporating it into their usual rounds. She said too that there were some new blight-reduction strategies in the works, such as code crackdowns on commercial corridors where redevelopment seems plausible, such as Point Breeze Avenue and North 5th Street in Olney.

There’s little doubting Swanson’s determination. The Vacancy Strategy Unit is clearly something she believes in. “It remains a priority,” she says of the vacancy unit. “I’m not going to let it die.”

But a review of publicly available L&I citation data shows a substantial decline in vacancy-related activity in recent months, suggesting the staffing reductions are having an impact.

L&I issued just 28 “doors and windows” violations in January, down from a monthly peak of 216 in September, 2012. On average, in the six months since the Market Street collapse, L&I has issued about 62 such violations a month, less than half as many as it was issuing from the program’s inception until last summer.

There has been a smaller but still significant drop-off in the issuance of vacancy violations; citations issued to property owners without a vacancy license. Those citations have declined from a 487 per month average to 404 per month after the cutbacks at the vacancy unit.

In an email, Swanson suggested multiple reasons why the citation count could be lower. She noted that not all inspections end in citations, pointed out that the citation count has ebbed and flowed through the life of the program and contended that the decline in citations could be evidence that the program is working. “A reduction in blight necessarily means that there are fewer violations to write,” Swanson said in the email.

But the perception within L&I is that the blight effort is not receiving much attention or support from Commissioner Williams, according to multiple sources within city government who spoke to Axis Philly anonymously.

Swanson counters those conclusions. Indeed, she hopes and expects the department will seek more money for the effort in the forthcoming budget. If it does, the TRF analysis should help the department make persuasive case to Mayor Nutter and City Council.

Since 2011, Patrick Kerkstra has been covering the impact of property tax delinquency on the quality of life in Philadelphia. This latest article was published jointly by AxisPhilly and PlanPhillyFollow Patrick Kerkstra on Twitter @pkerkstra.

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