Illegal construction is causing an uptick in building collapses. Will Philly hire more inspectors?

Illegal construction has already damaged more Philly houses in 2019 than in prior years — three to date compared to one or two incidents in a typical year.

A house once stood on an empty lot on Tulip Street in Old Richmond. It collapsed because of faulty demo next door. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A house once stood on an empty lot on Tulip Street in Old Richmond. It collapsed because of faulty demo next door. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

This article originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

Jim Hopp didn’t know it would be his last time seeing his childhood home whole when he pulled up to pick up the mail a month ago.

The Fishtown house was where he grew up and still celebrated most holidays, with his children and grandchildren. Easter, his mom’s favorite, was a ritual there.

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But the instant he pulled up to the Tulip Street address on that March day, he knew something was wrong. He saw construction workers fleeing the house next door, purchased last year by a limited liability company.

“All these workers were running out of the house,” said Hopp. “The reason was that the wall was collapsing and they were afraid the house was going to fall on them.”

The workers were illegally excavating the basement, digging down into the earth to create more living space in the house. They did so without a proper engineering plan or permits from the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections. As a result, they destroyed the shared retaining wall between the two homes.

Workers razed both houses within a few days. Hopp and his family stood across the street staring in disbelief as the house they loved was systematically dismantled by a demolition crew. It was hard to watch, but they felt a responsibility to be there for its end.

“We lost everything in that house, so many family heirlooms,” said Hopp. “It’s been particularly hard on the grandchildren. That’s their formative years they spent in that house with my parents and to see it all go up in dust, just watching the house being taken apart piece by piece, it was terrible.”

Siblings Denise Hudson and Jim Hopp were shocked when their childhood home on Tulip Street in Old Richmond collapsed because of faulty demo next door. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

As the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) faces its budget hearing Wednesday afternoon, cases like this will be at the forefront of the agenda.

The agency is seeking funds to hire 10 new inspectors for the Audits and Inspections unit, which proactively ensures contractors are following city regulations. The current unit only has a staff of two, out of 169 building and code inspectors. L&I will probably find a receptive audience: Two City Councilmembers have introduced bills in the last year to expand L&I’s budget and inspectorate.

Illegal construction has already damaged more houses in 2019 than in years past — three to date compared to a typical year where L&I only records one or two incidents.

In February, Karen Klenk lost the home she and her nine siblings grew up in when contractors working next door — without proper permits or engineering plans — caused the Fishtown rowhouse to collapse. Hopp says the family from Thompson Street stopped by to commiserate during his demolition vigil. An illegal basement excavation was the cause of their collapse as well.

Another recent incident on Wallace Street in North Philadelphia forced L&I to evacuate tenants from a nearby house. There, a contractor digging in a vacant lot without proper permits or plans caused the sidewalk and neighboring driveway to sink into the ground. Even after inspectors slapped the project with violations, the contractors kept digging there.

“They said, ‘We don’t know how long you won’t be allowed back in the house for, but just get what you can and get out,’” said Brittany Szabo, a tenant. “I literally had 10 minutes to pack my bags and get out.”

Szabo was lucky. She returned home after L&I filled in the pit left by the renegade contractors.

Others have lost their lives. The most deadly was a 2013 collapse at the Salvation Army thrift store that killed seven people, but fatal collapses have happened since. In 2018, Harvey Figgs, a construction foreman, died when a Brewerytown building fell and crushed him. The company that hired Figgs, Gama Wrecking, failed to brace the buildings, “willfully” endangering workers’ safety, an OSHA investigation found.

And in December, a property in Francisville collapsed on a crew of contractors as they worked on a project, momentarily trapping two under the rubble.

Over the last three years, more than 20 workers have been killed on Philadelphia construction sites, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Commissioner of Licenses and Inspections Dave Perri attributes 2019’s uptick in house collapses to multiple factors. These include “cowboy” contractors and the particular vulnerabilities of Philadelphia’s row home neighborhoods. If an unscrupulous builder screws up their project in most American cities, it won’t matter to the neighbors because their homes aren’t physically attached to the project. Philadelphians, with their rowhouses, don’t have that luxury.

Climate change and the persistent drive to maximize livable square footage play major roles too, Perri says.

“The weather is definitely a factor, as well as the greed and ignorance on the part of certain contractors,” Perri said. “That has contributed to a rash of excavation and underpinning failures in Philadelphia.”

Drive to maximize square feet leads to risky construction

Many rowhomes built before World War II have basements designed to store coal and not much more. These typically small spaces are not readily usable as living space. But developers seeking to turn these modest dwellings into luxury townhouses that can sell for upwards of half a million dollars in Fishtown and other gentrifying neighborhoods see opportunity in the underground square feet.

The challenge is that these old basement walls are made of “rubble stone,” basically a bunch of uncut rocks fused together by mortar. They do not rest on concrete footings, but on densely packed dry soil. That base becomes less stable when it is moist — and there have been record levels of rainfall in recent years because of climate change, with Philadelphia getting 70 to 80 inches of rain annually.

When unprepared contractors start digging down into these rowhouse basements, the rubble walls weaken and fail, potentially taking two houses with them.

“Philly rowhomes are very sturdy construction,” said Perri. “We have countless homes that last 100 years or longer without any structural problems. But if there is an achilles heel, it’s that you cannot dig out the cellars without first pouring a concrete foundation to support the bearing walls.”

Contractors are seeking shortcuts to save time and money, says Perri, and because the work takes place indoors, they hope to remain under the radar.

The property owner and contractor for 2624 Tulip Street, next door the Hopps home, was Wharton Homes LLC. The owner, William Z. Cunningham, refused to comment for this article, saying that the matter is being litigated and questions should be referred to his lawyer.

Perri said that Licenses and Inspections sent both the Tulip Street and the Thompson Street cases to District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office.

It is only sheer chance that no one died and that level of irresponsibility shouldn’t be met with just the loss of a license, Perri said.

Despite these dramatic cases, L&I believes that unpermitted work in the city is on the decline. They attribute the progress to the 10-year property tax abatement. To get the expansive tax break for either new construction or substantial repairs, permits must be shown, disincentivizing off-the-books work.

Still, 6,108 properties have received violations for exceeding a permit or working without one since January of 2017, according to L&I.

The agency’s plans to crack down on illegal construction and go beyond the proposed hiring of 10 proactive inspectors. L&I recently started distributing educational materials about the dangers of basement excavations and how to spot illegal jobs from the outside. (Look for dumpsters filled with soil or contractors driving away truckloads of dirt from an intact rowhouse site.)

L&I also wants to establish neighborhood advisory councils, which Perri likens to Police Advisory Boards, to alert the agency to unsafe construction work. They are already working with neighbors in Fishtown and Kensington, and plan to begin a similar task force in Point Breeze, which is experiencing equivalent levels of construction.

All this is too late for the Hopp home on Tulip Street, of course. For now, the family is seeking restitution from Wharton Homes LLC and trying to figure out what to do with the vacant lot that used to house their family’s collective memories.

“It’s a good thing for the city the neighborhoods are coming back. Money is being spent to revitalize the areas, it’s all good things,” said Hopp. “But it has to be done correctly … It’s going to take someone getting killed for this to get taken care of.”

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