Q&A: Christopher Sawyer and John Kromer on blighted property activism, and the race for Sheriff

Back in 2011, Fels professor, former Director of Housing, and PlanPhilly community contributor John Kromer ran a grassroots campaign in the Democratic primary to be Philadelphia’s last Sheriff, arguing that the office, currently under federal investigation, should be phased out. Much of Kromer’s critique centered on the well-documented dysfunction in the real estate unit. For a longer take on those issues, read Isaiah Thompson’s series at AxisPhilly. For a shorter take, the basic gist of the problems is surprisingly well-covered in this western-themed music video the Kromer campaign made. 

Incumbent Sheriff Jewell Williams ultimately prevailed over Kromer in the election, and by Thompson’s account, many of the same problematic behaviors the Controller’s audit uncovered still exist. Now, anti-blight activist and Philadeliquency blogger Christopher Sawyer is challenging Williams this year, and is taking a different tack. He switched his registration to Republican to run in the general election, and unlike Kromer, he’s not running on abolishing the office. Instead, he’s running to manage the office differently, particularly the tax sale process, and position the Sheriff as something like a public advocate on the blight and delinquency issues he writes about, colorfully, on his blog. 

Jon Geeting and John Kromer recently sat down with Sawyer to discuss his campaign and his proposals for the Sheriff’s office as part of PlanPhilly’s election Q&A series. We’ve extended an offer to Sheriff Jewell Williams to sit down with us as well. 

PlanPhilly: The blight issue doesn’t seem to be resonating as a major issue in the campaign, but anyone who’s read your blog over the years, or PlanPhilly’s tax delinquency series, knows that it’s a huge challenge for the city, with some complicated politics. Why isn’t this resonating more?

Christopher Sawyer: Well it’s a very old problem. And for the established folks that have had control over this issue, and could have reshaped it, it’s always been looked at as too big of a problem. They think they can’t deal with it, and so what they’re going to do is just manage the decline of the city. And what do you do when you can’t do something? You appeal to emotion. “I care about this problem just as much as you do.” That’s not good enough, especially when you can see how rapidly some of these neighborhoods are changing. How can some of these neighborhoods go so quickly from moribund to booming?

Kensington had the longest period of decline, from the early 1970’s when the depopulation really took off there, then it went through the crack epidemic, and it became this walled off area of the city that people just skip over for the most part. For the people who lived here, no one is there helping them, and all they can really do in their day to day lives is just ignore it. You can deal with it, make fun of it, use humor just to get through but during this huge recession that we had as a country, the real estate data from 2009 to 2010 showed there was still development happening in two areas: Point Breeze and Kensington. Areas of the city that many people think of as economically vulnerable, that have the least amount of hope. 

And it was obvious that was happening. What made that happen? What about that 30-year time span where the city had all this federal aid and it still looked like crap? 

PP: What do you make of the legacy of the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative in your area in Kensington?

CS: In some place what you were dealing with before was, say, only 15 residents left on the block–legitimately living there–surrounded by shells and empty buildings. Flophouses, drug houses, whatever. You’d see lots of changeover on the block where you live, and the police come out and handle something, the fire department, and that’s really depressing and oppressive. 

And when we cleared away the places that people weren’t legitimately living in, those folks that were causing the crime problem no longer had a pillow to sleep on at night. And they’ve moved on to somewhere else. So you did solve a local crime issue with NTI. 

So there was a lot of money given over to NTI, funded by bonds, and we later discovered we overpaid way too much and we could have done a lot more with NTI. But it was a contracting bonanza.

John Kromer: Have you read about the leftover $22 million that has to be committed this year? That’s a clue. [ed. by the end of March]

PP: Let’s talk about delinquency, since that’s been the main focus of your blog. 

CS: It’s a new day, it’s a new way with the Nutter administration. We put up the tax delinquent site of shame, you’ve got the branding. And they put the list up, but they weren’t refreshing the data month by month so it got stale. This was just for show. 

I got in front of the tax delinquency hearings that[Councilwoman] Maria [Quinones-Sanchez] and Bobby Henon had put together, and I sat down with even a few adversaries on this panel, and said what do we do about this problem of this huge amount of negligent waste? It’s making us look bad to the taxpayers. They know they’ve got it coming, and they’re going to start paying attention. Nutter wants to help out–we had the tax czar, who’s no longer there. He wasn’t there for that long. The guy who was responsible for doing the accelerated liens for PGW, which is causing so much controversy with landlords.

I need to do a follow-up story on whether Irv Ackelsberg has been making any headway. He’s been representing people who have been hit with gas liens. For me, gas liens are a clue that a property is blighted. I’ve been trying to put together a metric that’s like “tax delinquency + gas liens + L&I code violations” and then assign levels of damage, almost like World of Warcraft. And then that way I can come up with a map of the individual parcel level that gives properties a blight score of x

PP: That type of thing is pretty exciting to us, but what’s going to be your short pitch to the voters? Some of these issues are pretty complicated. 

CS: Right when Jewell Williams was elected, the Sheriff’s office was audited by the Controller’s office through an independent auditor Deloitte, and received the most damning audit that the Controller’s office has ever produced. It showed mismanagement every step of the way.

The real estate section is the most important, because it can solve so many other problems. Three-quarters of all the debt that’s sitting around, according to Pew, is owned by outside investors. It’s either rental properties, or speculative activity, and then there’s also dead owners, where the property’s just sitting unclaimed. Only a fraction of this is actually owned by active investors–what I call active investors, they’ll pay late, but they’ll pay–and homeowners make up the rest. 

Subtract the active homeowners out of that mix, and you’ve still got this gigantic debt sitting there. Out of that, you have a fraction that you know is collectable. Pew’s guess is somewhere around 10%, my guess is that out of the someodd $550 million in arrears, there’s really closer to around $100 million sitting on the table. So in Philadeliquency, I’ve gone property after property after property where I’ve proven that the owner behind the property is active.

I’ve highlighted ones where it’s either an active business or a landlord or something like that. I’m not out to get struggling homeowners. Not only is that political suicide, that’s just absolutely idiotic. The reason we want to go after this debt is to give relief to the people who have lived here their whole lives, because those folks are struggling.

I created a map that shows which property owners are genuine deadbeats, and which ones are trying to recover. I made one of payment plans that showed where folks are the most compliant with plans. It turns out East and West Oak Lane. Some of the divisions have payment plan participation rates of 60-70% or better. What that tells me is that these aren’t deadbeat investors, these are people doing everything they can to hang on to their homes. 

PP: You’ve been critical of the city’s approach to housing and affordability strategies. What do you think we’re getting wrong?

CS: During this whole mess of the recession, we had the Neighborhood Stabilization Program from the Obama administration. That was money that was deliberately offset the negative effects of foreclosure on neighborhoods. Where did that money go? To build $300,000 housing units in gentrifying areas far away from where the struggling homeowners are. 

PP: Who made that call?

CS: It was a group decision by Council. For example, in Maria Quinones-Sanchez’s area you had groups like Norris Square Civic Association that had ideas for this money, in order to build more housing units. They basically want to eliminate blight as well, and this was easy access to a source of funds for them. Council is not really responsible for where the money goes. They can allocate it to anything having to do with propping up real estate where you’re doing something positive. So they directed most of the attention toward there.

To me, you have a problem with occupied home owners just at the precipice up in the Northwest. In the Northeast, you had the foreclosure wipeouts. Torresdale, Wissinoming, that part of the Northeast is Fannie Mae home central–what we call REO homes. If you’re going to rehabilitate a house and make it an affordable home, go after the ones that are already out there. Go after the ones that have just become unoccupied, because you’ll spend less money fixing it back up than you would building a $300,000 cookie-cutter home.

JK: But wouldn’t the response from the Municipal Services Building be “we’re doing exactly what you’re talking about?” There’s a group that meets where Law Department and Revenue decide which are the most collectable liens and pursue those, work with the Legal Services agency to try to support payment plans. Wouldn’t the response be, you’re exactly right and we’re doing that? 

CS: Payment plan penetration rates in some areas of the Northeast are all the way down to like 5%. I’ve gone after, and pushed to Sheriff’s sale, properties actively owned. This is in a market rate area. Don’t give me the story that no one is going to buy this property. No one was as resistant before until after [Patrick] Kerkstra’s article had come out and exposed the problem by showing the data. 

Before, the excuse was what I call the grandmother problem. We couldn’t go after tax deadbeats because we don’t want to push seniors out of their homes. That just tells me that you don’t understand the problem and you don’t have the data. 

CS: The reality now is that you have all these speculative properties sitting around that haven’t paid since like the Carter administration. 

PP: You’ve been critical of the slow pace of Sheriff’s sales. What would a more appropriate volume look like?

CS: You really need to hit about 1,500 a month to make a difference. 1,500 to 2,000 a month. And then you have such a huge backlog where you can look at the map and see where are areas that are most vulnerable to Sheriff’s sale where I’m going to get paid, and not have a big impact on homeowners? You can triage. So I can look at such-and-such Market Street, see that it’s commercial and send it down the river. If we’re looking at residential property, what kind, and what brought this to Sheriff’s sale in the first place. It’s easy to do this triage. You can train people to do this.

As Sheriff I would do outreach to community groups and take complaints from residents. Tell me about the property you have a problem with, give me the address. I can’t make the problem magically disappear for you, but what I have the authority to do, is if I see a property coming up for Sheriff’s sale, I can take all of that advice under consideration and put properties in the express lane. 

We don’t do online auctions here. You get just one chance for a few short minutes, and that’s not much of a chance to get the thing actually sold. That’s stupid. If it doesn’t sell at auction, the city owns it, and we already own too much property. They don’t really market it, and don’t provide any good information of interest to buyers. You also don’t make it easy to buy the property either.

PP: That gets us into some of the land bank issues. How do you see the Sheriff’s office working with the land bank?

CS: Internally in City Council there are Councilmembers who believe the Sheriff’s office should just be eliminated and the land bank supersede it. But there’s no political will to eliminate the Sheriff. It was talked about when they were getting rid of some of the other row offices. So Sheriff’s office is going to stick around and it still has its assigned duty. What City Council can do is go back and fix the land bank bill, streamline it to eliminate the bureaucracy, and then I can trade properties back and forth between the land bank and the Sheriff’s office.

JK: It seems clear the Council likes the multiple reviews and sign-offs.

CS: Not all of them. 

JK: Do 9 of them have the votes…

CS: I’ll say this for the record: Darrell Clarke absolutely loves that this is a byzantine bureaucracy, and that the city takes forever to move properties. He’s a huge fan of Councilmanic prerogative. He even wrote an op-ed in the paper defending it. It’s such a concentration of influence.

JK: But I think he has an appreciation of the value of real estate that’s similar to yours.

CS: Oh absolutely. But he has different motivations for it. You can use it to extract from those who want to invest in your community.

JK: You’ve covered a really broad range. How does this all this boil down to a message that leads someone leaving a meeting saying “I’m going to vote for Sheriff, and I’m going to vote for this candidate for Sheriff.”

CS: The best way I can phrase it is, the reason I’m passionate about real estate issues is you walk out your door every day and when you look around, everything that’s within your span of vision intersects with real estate. And not just the market–it comes down to the decisions the city made, and how individual property owners behaved that results in everything you see around you. People judge neighborhoods by how they look. And people’s emotions and attitudes are also affected by that. 

And when it comes time to pay real estate taxes, and you see this massive amount of debt owed to the city, you have to constantly ask why: why aren’t you going after these tax deadbeats? The Sheriff’s office is actually part of the problem. It doesn’t have the wherewithal to reform itself to make itself a functioning organ that can go after properties, and can extract money out that’s owed to the city.

The Bucks Hosiery fire, that was an active property owner who wouldn’t pay his property tax bill, he was scared of them taking the deed away. No amount of scary letters piling up will make a difference until you take that deed away. Totally taking the deed away is the only way to make them pay up. 

What’s going to happen next year, with the school district in a cycle of asking the city for money over and over, and we have City Council having to turn around and find some way to raise revenue. 

JK: It’s a very interesting view of the Sheriff’s office as kind of an advocate. I think if you ask someone who’s not very aware of what’s been going on in Philadelphia they’d say, well the Sheriff is a functionary of the court, and the job of the Sheriff is to carry out the wishes of the court.

PP: Like a type of police officer

CS: The public image of the Sheriff people get from TV. They think it is a real law enforcement agency like the police department or the District Attorney’s office. They carry out court orders, yes, but it can do more.

JK: Redefining the Sheriff as an advocate though is really a different approach and it seems to me like you’re saying you’ll advocate for neighborhood quality of life and that type of thing. It’s interesting because in the last campaign, Jewell Williams was saying the Sheriff is the only person standing between Philadelphians who are faced with being out on the street.

CS: Absolutely. This is the last stop before you lose the keys to the house. But what has Sheriff Williams actually done in terms of helping these people? There are no housing counselors, for instance, out there doing direct outreach to people and showing them the universe of options available to them. These folks have to be able to know that, say, a Chapter 7 bankruptcy might be the best way out. We did this for a short period during the height of foreclosure, and we were doing it at the court itself. But that program is long gone, and we’re back to this silent food chain of in-and-out foreclosures.

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