‘I’m frightened’: City to shut down dangerous digging in Philly yard

A contractor operated in violation of city codes in Germantown. (Courtesy of Anthony Miller)

A contractor operated in violation of city codes in Germantown. (Courtesy of Anthony Miller)

Joe Ann Gray couldn’t believe what she was seeing when a construction crew started using her backyard as a dumping ground.

Suddenly she was living next to a hazard: steel I-beams in a messy pile, dirt and wrecked fencing. All of it dropped on her property as the owner of the lot next door dug out a foundation for a new house.

“I don’t understand,” Gray said. “I don’t mind if they bought the lot next to me. But why would you destroy all my stuff when I live here?”

Gray’s complaints come at a time when Philadelphia is confronting a nuisance construction problem — an unfortunate outgrowth of the city’s building boom.

Both city residents and public officials are struggling to respond to a growing number of complaints about developers and contractors endangering neighbors with illegal construction and sometimes even, sticking homebuyers with shoddy work along the way. Within the first four months of 2019, illegal construction damaged more properties than is typical in a full year, city officials said in April.

Gray bought her rowhouse on Clapier Street in Germantown nearly 20 years ago. Four years after moving in, she bought one of the two vacant lots adjacent to her home for a side yard with a small patio.

Then, in 2018, developer Redzito Property Group bought the other vacant lot bordering Gray’s property with plans to turn the land into a new three-story rowhouse. A few months ago, heavy equipment and work crews appeared. They soon had taken over nearly the entirety of Gray’s yard.

“The lot and my house was fenced off. They took the fence down. They took the trees down,” she said. “I have a notice from L&I. They told me I have a gas leak. I guess they broke that, too.”

Gray says she told the crews to stop, to no avail.

An office manager for Freedom Construction, which is currently performing work on the property, referred questions to Redzito owner Antoine Davis. Davis did not respond to a request for comment.

Records from the city’s Department of Licenses & Inspections indicate that Redzito has racked up 37 code violations at a string of properties the company owns, including four at its Clapier Street project. The contractor was fined for over-excavating a foundation, a violation that can cause serious damage to surrounding property, especially in a city like Philadelphia where properties tend to pack tightly into dense blocks.

Gray worries the crews will eventually damage her home.

“I’m frightened,” she said. “I was trying to find someone to get them to stop digging. I keep trying to get someone to help me.”

That call was heard Friday after a reporter reached out to L&I and the agency sent an inspector to return to the construction site.

The city inspector found workers were again “over-excavating,” said L&I spokesperson Karen Guss in an email. The contractor will be issued a stop-work order and additional violations, she said.

Damages caused by excavation are on the rise as developers try to maximize square footage on small lots, L&I Commissioner Dave Perri told PlanPhilly in 2019.

Increased rainfall leading to more moisture in the soil also plays a role, Perri said.

“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.”

Perri hired more building inspectors last year and is putting in place other reforms in hopes of preventing damage.

City officials recommend calling 311 if you suspect a construction hazard. Call 911 if damage feels imminent.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.