Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez: fight absentee landlords with tax overhaul

Updated 10/20/10 @ 2:30 p.m.

The shooting that left a 19-year-old in critical condition outside a former adult theater in Frankford brings to light the ever-present battle with irresponsible absentee landlords, says Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez.

The reason so many absentee landlords are able to remain derelict in their responsibilities to maintain safe, clean and community-orientated properties, Sanchez said at Tuesday night’s Northwood Civic Association meeting, is because the city doesn’t have the man power to track them down.

“Part of the problem has always been about resources,” Sanchez said last night to nearly twenty residents in the basement of St. James Church at the corner of Castor Avenue and Pratt Street.

On Friday night, as NEast Philly reported, three male suspects were taken into custody in conjunction with the shooting in Womrath Park, which sits at the prominent intersection of Frankford and Kensington avenues. The West Frankford Town Watch, an organization we profiled in July, reported that the shooting grew out of a crowd of at least 75 young people who were in the area for a large party held inside the former Art Holiday, long a pornographic theater at 4204-12 Kensington Avenue, as the Frankford Gazette reported.

Sanchez said that her predecessor Councilman Dan Savage had secured $500,000 in Neighborhood Transformation Initiative monies in 2007 to purchase the Art Holiday to focus its use, as the Northeast Times reported three years ago, but the then-owner refused to sell the property for the appraised price, which was around $300,000, she said. So, despite the funds being available, because the city was legally unable to purchase a property for more than its appraised price, the deal was never closed, Sanchez explained.

According to the Office of Property Assessment website, the former theater sold for $233,000 in April 2008.

Updated 10/20/10 @ 2:30 p.m.: Sanchez says that often sales are devalued to avoid paying additional transfer tax. The original appraisal and related documentation is currently being sought.

“We then went through a couple versions of who actually owned it,” Sanchez said.

Today, the theater, which was first gutted and opened for renters in March 2009, is owned by Eaglehead Realty Inc, based in Brooklyn, New York City, according to the city’s Office of Property Assessment website. Now, Sanchez says, the building is rented out for what a 15th police district sergeant referred to last night as “rave parties,” the legality of which the councilwoman said her office is investigating.

The path that led to a potentially unregulated, unlicensed de-facto night club operating in Frankford and leading to the shooting of a teenager is a story of absenteeism, Sanchez said.

Sanchez speaks — Other topics addressed at the Northwood Civic meeting by Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez

  • The progress in tenure since 2008 [Youtube video]
  • Her voting against the proposed sugary drinks tax because “it is illegal” [Youtube video] “I’d vote for 20 cents an ounce if it was legal.”
  • On environmental issues, like drilling the Marcellus Shale and the future of Fairmount Park [Youtube video]
  • Answering resident concern about consumer protections [Youtube video]
  • Answering a resident question about city budget oversight [Youtube video]

The story goes that such property owners are concerned more with profit than curb appeal or community relationships, so shortcuts are taken.

As a potential solution to the problem Sanchez pointed to new city legislation from Ninth District Councilwoman Marian B. Tasco that would require any company or person who owns a property in Philadelphia but doesn’t have a primary address here to assign and post publicly a local property manager. That bill, Sanchez said, was passed in the spring and regulation language is being written now.

The city could further crack down on such absentee landlords if the finance department could focus more on tax-delinquent discovery because, the councilwoman said, so many landlords are themselves ignoring city taxes.

She pointed to her own legislation, a bill she is co-sponsoring with Councilman Bill Green that would, among other major changes to the city’s tax code, exempt small businesses from the first $100,000 of sales.

That, Sanchez told the Northwood Civic Association, “take 50,000 of the city’s 84,000 tax filers off the books,” allowing valuable finance department staff to focus on discovery, hunting down those who aren’t “paying their fair share. Like, she said, absentee landlords that could resemble Eaglehead Realty, whose distant oversight led to last week’s shooting.

“The bottom line is, whoever wants to cheat is going to cheat,” Sanchez said. “But we do taxes for law-abiding citizens.”

Also Noted — Other news from the October Northwood Civic Association meeting

  • Tony Bannister, who in November 2009 appeared at a Northwood civic meeting bright eyed and bushy tailed about a proposal to take over the Frankford Y, has accepted failure in that pursuit, blaming poor bookkeeping on behalf of current leadership. [Youtube video]
  • Northwood Civic President Barry Howell sought membership approval to retain a lawyer to defend the neighborhood against a zoning board variance appeals hearing in which Clear Channel is vying to be allowed to have a 120-foot antennae on 4640 Large Street, just 75 feet away from a residence, a quarter of the required distance. The zoning hearing is Nov. 10 2 p.m. at the 1515 Arch Street zoning board location.

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