Joe Anderson had always dreamed of owning a home, and in 2010 his dream came true with the purchase of a Kensington rowhouse.
Then the nightmare started.
At a neighbor's house, a resident's boyfriend returned from prison — bringing a stream of crime, prostitution and drugs onto the immigrant-heavy block. "There started being regular drug dealing out on the street in the open, and they had people out on the corners, and I just had enough," says Anderson (not his real name, as he still fears retaliation). "It kind of crushed my dream, in a way."
Anderson made it his mission to take down the nuisance house, and after almost a year the situation was resolved. The captain of the 26th District, Michael Cram, still cites it at community meetings as a success story of police-citizen collaboration, the ultimate manifestation of "eyes on the street."
All it took was 11 months, 183 emails, 200-plus 911 calls and a constant stream of photos, videos and personal pleas.
So-called nuisance houses are a problem in almost every corner of Philadelphia, and efforts to deal with them rely heavily on neighbors taking extraordinarily proactive measures. When 911 calls fail, neighbors like Anderson cultivate relationships with local police captains and the District Attorney's Public Nuisance Task Force (which publishes a 22-page manual, complete with affidavit worksheet, on how to take down a nuisance property), alternately begging for help, reporting suspicious activity and threatening bad press.
It puts a significant burden on neighbors to deal with what are frequently known offenders, not to mention magnets for criminal activity. For example, there were 451 police radio calls within 200 feet of Anderson's house during his yearlong stakeout. And while the police say they're addressing such situations aggressively, residents say change isn't coming fast enough.
Anderson, for one, would have rather minded his own business, but he explains, "I didn't really have any choice." Even if he wanted to sell his house, the new drug and prostitution traffic on his block would make it impossible. So he kept still and video cameras by his window, and became obsessed with spying and documenting.
"I didn't really sleep through the night for quite a while," he says. "If I heard anything, I'd get up and grab the camera. My girlfriend would complain about me always being at the window. People who visited would notice that, too, and they thought it was affecting me in an ill way."
Anderson says he spent much of the time figuring out how to make an impact with the local police. "The system is becoming clear," he says. "I think it's the squeaky wheel concept."
Indeed, last fall when Fishtown residents, also in the 26th District, complained to Cram that the alleged killer of a local man had disappeared into a well-known nearby nuisance house, the captain's response was that there had only been 18 911 calls in that vicinity in a year and a half. That doesn't come close to registering as a nuisance.
"This isn't TV," Cram told neighbors at that meeting. "Every time they do something, you have to call. That's just a little component of what you've got to do to make it a nuisance property. ... It has to be the whole neighborhood calling that shows us we do have a problem."
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey denies that there's a threshold that must be surpassed to gain police attention. "It could happen with one call, it can happen with 10 calls," he says. But he adds, "There's a legal process. Just because somebody calls doesn't mean you can take someone's property away. I understand people might be frustrated because things don't move quickly enough. But you have to prove there's illegal activity. It can take some time before you have enough that you're able to shut a property down."
The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office's Public Nuisance Task Force files 300 to 400 forfeiture actions a year on drug houses, brothels, speakeasies and other nuisance properties. It resolves many without forfeitures — sometimes it's as simple as getting a landlord to evict or reprimand a problem tenant — but it does forfeit about 100 properties annually.
"That has stayed constant for the five years that I've been chief of this unit, and consistent throughout the 20 years this unit has been in existence, which is, to be honest, pretty sad," admits Beth Grossman, who leads the task force.
The problem — while concentrated in the 24th, 25th and 26th Police Districts in the eastern parts of Philly — is a citywide concern. "We recently forfeited a house by agreement in Chestnut Hill. They are really everywhere," Grossman says. "The drug trade is so enormous here in Philadelphia that it's almost impossible to know how to address it."
Lisa Parsley of Southwest Center City says the most she can hope for is to move the problem out of her neighborhood. She's become a pro at the guerilla tactics of combating nuisance properties: the constant documentation, covert videotaping and developing relationships with local police captains and assistant district attorneys. Like Anderson, Parsley has become a little obsessive: "It's a war, and they will win or you will win — and I like to win."
She complains that everything "goes captain by captain, district by district. When you change district attorneys or captains, everything changes, so there's a lot of institutional knowledge that people ... don't leave behind. You start over a lot from scratch."
She also uses another tactic to cope with bad neighbors: posting the $800 required to certify a house in arrears on its property taxes for sheriff's sale. For those who don't have the patience for yearlong police investigations, it's a backdoor way to take down nuisance landlords — in theory.
In fact, the city brought only 1,500 properties to sheriff's sale in 2011 (about 800 directly, and 700 through co-counsel Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP). That's out of about 70,000 properties where taxes were two or more years past due. Less than 5 percent of sales begin with citizen deposits, according to Frances Beckley, chief counsel to the Philadelphia Revenue Department, which sends properties to the Sheriff's Office for sale.
Parsley says that the city often resists proceeding on cases she brings to their attention, or delays acting. "Why am I battling to get property tax collection done that every other county in the nation does?" she wants to know. "Why isn't the city ... sending masses of delinquent properties to be sold at sheriff's sale?"
The Revenue Department's mission, of course, isn't to crack down on problem houses; it's to collect taxes — and collections are up 60 percent over this time last fiscal year. Plus, Beckley argues, "There are tens of thousands of properties with nominal fair market values and delinquencies (also relatively small) that exceed the fair market value of the property, and would likely bring no bidding at tax sale at all."
In other words, it isn't worth the city's while to bring many of these properties to sale.
Parsley says that's a mistake, given the social cost of a nuisance property. "When they do [shut down a nuisance property], it totally changes neighborhoods. It's like a 10-block radius of just disappearing nuisance activity. Everything from car break-ins to house break-ins, it just — poof! — decreases remarkably, because you don't have the foot traffic of buyers," she says.
"They just want to go after the worst," she adds, but "a garden-variety dealer is pretty bad. It can destroy a neighborhood."
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