Residents of Southwest Philadelphia are suing an auto body shop that allegedly produces noise, debris, and smelly fumes just feet from their homes. It’s one of dozens of auto-related businesses operating amongst residences in that section of the city — creating what advocates see as an environmental justice issue.
“We all need small businesses, because it just helps with the neighborhood,” said Marceline Dix, who has lived in a row house close to the auto body shop her whole life. “But because they haven’t been operating in the manner that they should, it just makes it difficult.”
The suit, filed last week in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas by Dix and two other residents on her street, claims White’s Auto in Southwest Philadelphia has created a public and private nuisance and has trespassed on the residents’ property with disruptive noise, “noxious fumes,” broken-down cars blocking a shared alleyway, and debris spilling into backyards. The situation creates a fire hazard and concerns about health, the complaint claims. The plaintiffs are represented by the Public Interest Law Center and pro bono by Hausfeld LLP.
“It’s rough because it’s directly behind my home,” Dix said. “It affects a lot of different things — just me being able to enjoy my backyard. … We don’t have a lot of parking spaces to be able to park just because of all the abandoned cars.”
The owners of White’s Auto and of the property, both named as defendants in the suit, could not be reached for comment.
Dix said debris like tires, car parts, and containers of oil have appeared in her neighbors’ backyards. Dix and her two sons have mild asthma, which she said can be exacerbated by fumes when the auto body shop spray paints cars.
“When someone has asthma, that can be dangerous, just breathing in those fumes and feeling lightheaded and dizzy,” Dix said.
So Dix keeps her windows closed, which means higher utility bills in the summer when she needs to rely on air conditioning, according to the complaint.
Dix and the other plaintiffs want the court to award monetary damages and order the defendants to fix the alleged issues at the shop.
“I would like to see that they be penalized for the things that they are doing that they’re not supposed to be doing — because it affects our whole neighborhood,” Dix said.
Before joining the suit, Dix tried submitting complaints with photos to 311, calling the Fire Marshal and police, and talking to the operators of the auto body shop, she said.
“[Dix] and the other plaintiffs in the case have really tried everything under the sun,” said Public Interest Law Center lawyer Sari Bernstein.
The Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections has cited the property for nearly 60 violations dating back to 2007. The owner of the auto body shop currently operating at the property started leasing the space in 2014, according to the complaint.
It’s an “infamous site,” said Russell Zerbo, who helps residents lodge complaints against facilities in the city that negatively impact nearby residents in his role as an advocate with the nonprofit Clean Air Council.
Zerbo said the allegations exemplify common complaints and violations around auto body shops in Philly, including unpermitted spray painting and welding.
“One of the most ubiquitous issues is just that shops pour out onto any nearby sidewalks, alleys, driveways,” he said. “They go beyond their property boundaries.”
Dix said she’s not alone in living near an auto body shop that has become a nuisance.
“It’s very common, and it’s kind of sad,” Dix said. “I don’t think they understand how it also brings down the value of our properties.”
This does not happen in “more affluent areas of the city,” said Bernstein. “So it’s really an environmental justice issue, a holistic sort of systemic problem, and not just a one-off.”
A 2019 investigation by PlanPhilly found city zoning officials or judges gave more than 100 auto-related businesses variances to open on lots in Southwest Philly not originally meant for industrial uses. The section of the city is home to mainly Black, working-class residents.
Small auto repair businesses play an important role in the neighborhood, providing car maintenance that’s more affordable than what’s offered at big commercial chains, said Voffee Jabateh, CEO of the African Cultural Alliance of North America, a nonprofit involved in cleaning, greening, and economic development efforts in Southwest Philly — in addition to supporting the arts and offering immigration legal help. But the way many of these businesses operate now compromises residents’ quality of life and threatens to undermine efforts to build Africatown in Southwest Philly into a tourist destination, he said.
“Nobody says that they should not operate an auto body shop, but it should be done in a more professional way that leaves the community with dignity,” Jabateh said.
Jabateh’s ACANA has helped hundreds of small businesses in Southwest Philly improve their facilities by connecting them with resources such as the city’s Storefront Improvement Program, he said. He hopes to replicate this model with small auto body businesses, connecting them to grants or loans to help them restructure their businesses to be more “community friendly,” with proper space, machinery, and disposal methods for old tires and oil.
“It’s not us against them,” Jabateh said. “This is about a quality of life issue for the community. And as we make it better, everybody will be able to raise their children in a safe environment, a clean neighborhood.”
For this to work, Jabateh said the city needs to step up enforcement efforts, shutting down businesses until they fix violations.
“We need help from L&I to be able to do this,” he said.
The city launched a cross-departmental effort in 2018 called the Southwest Philly Auto Project, which resulted in several cease-operations orders after inspectors found 40% of the operations they inspected were not complying with city regulations.
But advocates say enforcement is not effective enough.
Bernstein, with the Public Interest Law Center, said the city should consider the amount of industry already present in residential neighborhoods when issuing new licenses and permits. Zerbo, the advocate with Clean Air Council, would like to see more money budgeted to L&I to hire additional inspectors and a greater emphasis on issuing and enforcing cease operations orders.
“More important than those things — the city can proactively go out and help businesses become safer,” Zerbo said.
A spokesperson for L&I declined to comment, saying the city does not comment on pending litigation.
For her part, Dix is hoping for relief.
“It is important to us,” Dix said. “We want our neighborhoods to be beautiful.”
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