Abandoned properties – the crisis of the month

    When an abandoned factory fire in Kensington killed two firefighters last month, and a grand jury was empanelled, and the mayor condemned the owners as scofflaws and deadbeats, and the city released a bunch of information about back taxes they owed (much of which turned out to be misleading), I was thinking, “I’ve seen this movie before.”

    Once was in 1996, when a massive tire fire under I-95 in Northeast Philadelphia shut down the highway. For weeks, the media and government regulators were obsessed with the subject of tire disposal. Turns out there are lots of places with thousands of old tires, and if they burn, it’s nasty and dangerous. Records were unearthed showing the property under I-95 had been cited by L&I for illegally storing tires, and within days a judge threatened the owners with jail if they didn’t clear 750,000 tires away from their properties.

    I don’t hear much about tire disposal anymore.

    In 2000, the terrace of a nightclub collapsed into the Delaware River when a portion of the pier it was built on gave way. Three people were killed and more than 40 injured. There was a grand jury and criminal charges, and for months, there were inspections of every pier on the river and intense media coverage of the issue of pier safety.

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    I don’t hear much about pier safety anymore.

    Now the issue is old and abandoned properties that pose fire hazards and generally present a public nuisance. It would be great if this time, there were some meaningful change.

    And on this subject, we had a prescient piece of work last year by journalist Patrick Kerkstra in collaboration with Plan Philly and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Kerkstra crunched a ton of data and looked into how the city of Philadelphia deals – or doesn’t deal – with tax delinquent properties.

    It wasn’t exactly news to report that Philadelphia is owed a gazillion dollars by delinquent property owners. But Kerkstra reported that in other large cities, property owners who don’t pay are routinely taken to foreclosure sales and lose their properties. In Philadelphia, that doesn’t happen, and the result is a “culture of non-payment” that encourages real estate speculators to buy and hold properties that are firetraps and eyesores for years.

    This isn’t an easy problem to solve, and city managing director Richard Negrin recently made the point that it doesn’t necessarily improve things if city takes possession of tens of thousands of vacant properties. I don’t know, seems to me that if the message has gotten around among speculators that they’re safe from foreclosure, you have to do something serious about that.

    You can hear a discussion with Kerkstra and Negrin on WHYY’s Radio Times  here. The Nutter team has another three years and change to work with. I’d like to see them make a lasting difference on this issue.

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