How blight fighter became trapped in tax delinquency

On the short block of South 47th Street between Paschall and Grays Ferry avenues there is a typical row of once-lovely, now- busted brick rowhouses. Porches sag, windows are broken and doors are boarded up.

One building in particular, 1503 S. 47th is in the worst shape, with an orange Clean and Seal notice from the Department of Licenses and Inspections posted in July 2011, on plywood where the front door should be. Tax delinquent? Check. Code violations? Check. Owner? Guy Thigpen.

Thigpen works for the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) and has been instrumental in building the agency’s new online “front door” for marketing city-owned vacant properties.

Did someone so intimately involved in the city’s blight fight really own this mess of a building and owe back taxes?

Sure enough.

When asked, Thigpen immediately acknowledged that he is the owner of 1503 S. 47th Street. Sort of. He says he does not have a clear title, a fact that he says has placed the building in limbo.

Thigpen acquired the building for $1 in 2008 from Global Sales Call Center (which had only purchased the property two years prior), before he came to work for PRA. “My purchase of it was basically for services that I rendered to someone. This was part of the payment for the services,” he said (without specifying said services). The previous owner had mentioned a title issue, and Thigpen says his attorney is currently working to clear the title.

“It’s turned into an onion that I’m trying to peel,” Thigpen said.

Thigpen hoped to rehab the building for sale or rent, but couldn’t finance the work given the property’s unclear ownership. He would consider selling it, but only if he could recover at least some of the costs that have gone into clearing the title.

“If someone was willing to buy it once I cleared the title then I could walk out where I don’t lose any money. I could cut my losses. That’s what I’m kind of leaning toward right now,” he explained.

As of March 8 the outstanding tax balance on 1503 S. 47th Street is $5,289.66. Thigpen says he paid 2010 and 2011 taxes, but that the majority of what is owed on the building (dating from 1997 to the present) predates his ownership, plus penalties and interest.

“Once I get clear title to it I plan to resolve the liens at that point. Right now I don’t even have clear title to it,” he said, explaining that he doesn’t want to sink any more money into a property he has a chance of losing. Meanwhile he intends to pay his overdue 2012 taxes. For the rest of it, he is able to wait out the legal proceedings thanks to a loophole in the city’s collections programs.

Much like the general public, the problem of tax delinquency is common enough among city employees. But in recent years the city has tried collect back taxes from its employees and pensioners through programs run through the Revenue Department and the Office of the City Controller. The Employee Indebtedness Program, established in the Controller’s Office in 2010, aims to put city employees into tax compliance through payment plans or involuntary wage garnishments.

“[PRA] employees are not on city payroll, so they’re not part of the withholding,” said Brian Dries from the Office of the City Controller. That means that people like Thigpen who work for quasi-city agencies fall through a collections crack.

There are 41 city employees currently in the city’s Employee Indebtedness Program, which has collected $2.7 million since January 2010.

So how does Thigpen reconcile this personal property mess, and its blighting effects, with his current work on the city’s vacant property problems?

Thigpen says his experience makes him wish for a simplified city program to clear tangled titles, that would help put properties like 1503 S. 47th Street back into productive use and occupancy. And it’s precisely because of his work on vacancy issues that he’s actually spending the money to clear the title.

“I could have sold it to someone else for a dollar and it would still have been a problem for the city because they still would have done the same thing,” Thigpen said. “What we’re committed to doing as a city, and what I am committed to doing personally, is get down to the root of the problem and solve it.” In the case of this property that means clearing title so it can move out of property limbo and be rehabbed.

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