CITING EYESORES: The Snyder family, which owns blighted buildings in Old City, was unsuccessfully sued in Municipal Court multiple times before being dragged into Common Pleas Court.
In the wake of last month’s unthinkable building collapse, all eyes fell on the Department of Licenses & Inspections, the city agency responsible for code enforcement. L&I, along with the Revenue Department, is supposed to act as the city’s shield against negligent property owners. But even when L&I has cited owners — like Richard Basciano’s STB Investments, which owned the building at 22nd and Market, or Michael Lichtenstein’s York Street Property Development, whose decrepit factory burned down and claimed the lives of two firefighters — its threats have lacked teeth.
A scroll through the court dockets for Philly’s most notorious slumlords reveals why: The vast majority of cases are taken to Municipal Court, where the case hits a roadblock if the address on file for a landlord turns out to be phony or out of date, meaning a court summons can’t be served. As a result, the same outcome appears over and over again: Cases marked “dismissed without prejudice” for lack of service, and buildings allowed to continue crumbling into blight.
Among those who have benefited from this loophole: Basciano, Lichtenstein, Landvest mega-slumlord Robert Coyle and every member of the Snyder family profiled in our story “The Trouble with Old City," about the neighborhood’s enduring blight. In a quintessentially Philadelphian bureaucratic twist, the city has even failed to serve other government agencies, including the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and, amazingly, itself (someone had apparently switched offices, according to court records).
The city’s Law Department Code Enforcement Unit blames insufficient staffing and outdated computers, but insists strides have been made. More code-enforcement cases are being pursued — and more aggressively — than before, and are benefiting from recently enacted laws. Still, the pace of litigation, in some cases around buildings that present urgent safety concerns, is agonizingly slow.
The way the system works is relatively straightforward. If a property owner fails to comply with three L&I citations, the case is turned over to the Law Department. City attorneys may prosecute landlords either in Municipal Court, which can only issue fines, or in the more powerful, but slower-moving, Court of Common Pleas, which can actually order an owner to fix violations.
It’s a sort of triage approach, says Andrew Ross, the deputy city solicitor who oversees the Law Department’s Housing and Code Enforcement Unit. The more serious cases — dangerous properties, repeat violators and big-time slumlords — theoretically go to Common Pleas. But the vast majority of complaints, nearly 90 percent, are quickly processed in Municipal Court, with the hope of scaring owners into compliance.
The problem is volume. The division filed nearly 5,500 property-maintenance cases last year, on top of thousands of other unrelated cases such as health-code violations. Just seven city attorneys handle this caseload; only three of those deal with Municipal Court cases, and even they are not on L&I’s cases full-time.
Personnel constraints have been exacerbated in recent years, despite the growing public attention to the city’s blight problem. “Our numbers, like all city people all across the board, have been shrinking,” Ross says. Meanwhile, demands on the department have grown. Code enforcement had a big year in 2011, thanks to Act 90, a state law that came into effect allowing municipalities to attach L&I liens to a property owner’s other assets. A city ordinance that enables L&I to cite certain vacant buildings for missing doors and windows was also enacted in 2011. The Nutter administration trumpeted a new “Blight Court” to take down deadbeat property owners once and for all. (Ross clarified that this term is actually a euphemism for the increase in his division’s code-enforcement efforts.) The result: There were 7,373 code-enforcement cases put forth in Municipal Court that year, the most by far in a decade.
Given that, up until 2011, L&I employees with no legal training brought these cases to Municipal Court, the city can call the current situation an improvement, says L&I spokesperson Maura Kennedy. Back then, far fewer complaints were filed and many went nowhere — often due to lack of service. But the problem is ongoing. In a random sample of 100 L&I cases filed in Municipal Court this April, 40 percent fizzled out after service wasn’t made.
Ross says that recently the Law Department has been taking more no-service cases to Common Pleas Court. At that point, “We will actually do some more research, if necessary, to nail down the actual owner and the actual place where we can serve them.” There have been some results: The Snyder family, who received dozens of Municipal Court complaints, have finally been hauled into Common Pleas Court. But far fewer cases are brought to Common Pleas: just 400 in 2012. Among those who have seen cases against them die out at the Municipal Court level is YML Realty LLC, which the Lichtenstein family still uses to hold properties in Philadelphia. That case was dismissed just one month after the 2012 fire and has not been brought to Common Pleas Court.
Ross notes it’d be easier to pursue such cases with modern computer systems. L&I is currently running on a nearly decade-old system that doesn’t communicate with the software used by the Revenue Department or the courts. In addition to allowing slumlords to keep getting permits, this situation forces city lawyers to search through each database, a time-consuming process. Kennedy says L&I plans to overhaul its system, but the process has a long way to go. On top of that, Ross said Act 90 powers don’t allow the city to pierce the corporate veil. If a landlord owns properties under an LLC that has no other assets, the city has little recourse.
Beth McConnell of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations says the result is delay after frustrating delay: “A lot of violations, a small number of attorneys, combined with absentee property owners that just ignore citations, and you have a long, slow slog.”
She knows from personal experience — such a dilapidated property sits on her own block in South Philly. “L&I visited three times, 30 days apart, cited the property owner, who failed to respond, and the case went to court in November. The process has taken about a year so far,” she says, “and the property has not yet been secured.”
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