Tenants forced out of Old City apartments as building changes over to short-term rentals

The apartments inside 509 Vine Street are being converted into short-term rentals. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The apartments inside 509 Vine Street are being converted into short-term rentals. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A residential building at 509 Vine St., known as the Boekel building, is turning into an apartment-style hotel. All units will become short-term rentals — a la Airbnb. And residents are not happy about it.

“I’m totally floored,” said Marcie Spitzer, a longtime renter in the building. “It’s upsetting because I like this building and it’s not right to kick people out, especially when they’ve been here this long.

Like others, Spitzer learned about the impending conversion from a certified letter delivered to each tenant that said the building would soon be managed by Stay Alfred, a company specializing in short-term rentals nationwide.

“This letter will serve as formal notification that under the terms of your lease the lease will not be renewed,” wrote landlord Daniel Sablosky. “We do know for many tenants who have lived here for many years that this change may be difficult.”

According to the letter, the management deal will begin on Sept. 1, with most tenants asked to vacate the premises by October. Residents said that the building had suffered several fires and that Sablosky had reportedly attempted to sell the property in the past.

A call to Stonehenge Advisors, where Sablosky works, was not immediately returned on Wednesday.

This is the latest in a string of similar conversions by companies such as StayAlfred, Sonder Corp, and Lyric Hospitality, which the Philadelphia Inquirer estimates have set aside upwards of 1,300 units in Philadelphia for short-term rental use. Most of these occupy prime real estate in Center City and the tourist-friendly neighborhoods immediately adjacent, but as the trend spreads farther afield so do new questions of legality, observers say.

“There’s been a lot of interest in using multifamily dwelling structures for short-term lodging, which is not appropriate under the code,” said Ron Patterson, longtime zoning and land-use attorney in Philadelphia.

Inappropriate is one way to describe a situation some city employees and lawyers see as a legal gray area.

Philadelphia legalized short-term rentals under a 2015 law that gave property owners the green light to rent out residences, with the caveat that rentals of full residential units can’t exceed 90 days per year. Those that do must be treated as “visitor accommodations,” like any other more heavily regulated hotel.

In the case of 509 Vine St., the property is zoned CMX-3, an extremely permissive zoning category that allows for visitor accommodations. But in many other parts of the city, neighbors complain that lodging units are operating illegally for more than 90 days in zoning districts that don’t allow for hotel uses.

Philadelphia followed the legal route many other U.S. cities have taken as local officials struggle to keep up with a fast-growing market most didn’t see coming before Airbnb hit the scene in 2008 and ignited a trend. The startup’s model made it relatively seamless for property owners to treat residences as a kind of indie hotel open for bookings.

Like many other cities, Philadelphia has found its 90-day restriction difficult to enforce. The city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections is responsible for enforcing the limit on rental days — a challenge for a resource-strapped regulatory agency already struggling to keep up with demands for building inspectors and safety enforcement officers.

Cheryl Carroll lives in a condo adjacent to the soon-to-be lodge. She said the neighborhood should have been consulted about a change in use that she said will remove people invested in the Old City community.

“A lot of people are extremely upset,” Carroll said. “Now you’re talking about transients. Transients don’t care about the neighborhood.”

She mentioned one resident of 509 Vine who had become deeply involved in the local community during his tenancy, installing planters, sweeping up litter on adjacent streets, and reaching out to local homeless people.

That man is Charles Nygard, a nine-year resident of the building. He said he was personally contacted over the phone by his landlord, but the loss of the community inside and around the apartment building was still particularly acute.

“I got really invested,” Nygard said. “It’s really an upheaval for me. I have to close down all that community stuff.”

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