McDonald says the city was never liable, and that the law on such matters is clear and "will be the city's guide." Payouts in the past were merely humanitarian gestures, he says; the city's not in a position to make such gestures now. "The fiscal situation of the city of Philadelphia in 2012, compared to 2001 or '02 or '03, is very different. A lot of the moneys used for the Logan [Triangle] were [federal Community Development Block Grant] funds from when the city was getting probably $75 million or $85 million a year. It is an extremely different environment now."
Some residents, though, claim the city has over the years purposefully avoided buyouts — going so far, in at least one case, as to leave state and federal money on the table. They suspect the city is hoping to sidestep not only the immediate costs of relocation assistance, but also the enduring blight that — as the still-vacant Logan Triangle illustrates — buyouts can leave behind.
In Eastwick's Penrose section — part of the same urban-renewal scheme that hatched Towne Gardens — resident Leo Brundage says he's seen just what resistance from the city can do. His house on the 7800 block of Saturn Place sits on a different kind of compromised ground: an old landfill on the edge of the Lower Darby Creek, which is itself an uncontained Superfund site. Since 1999, six major floods have each flushed up to 6 feet of what he fears is toxic water into his home, leaving blue high-water marks. While a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection analysis this year found no evidence of a cancer cluster in Brundage's zip code, he and his neighbors say their block, the closest to the creek and the landfill, has seen far more than its share of respiratory afflictions and cancer deaths. Brundage himself is a cancer survivor.
In 2002, the state put up $1.7 million to match $3.6 million in federal funding set aside to buy out Penrose residents. But Brundage and others say the city stalled, changing the rules on appraisals and adding new conditions like making buying out any given block of rowhomes an all-houses-or-none proposition. "They waited and made all kinds of excuses, until the [funds expired]."
Still, selling is not an option. "A lot of people on our block died," he says. "Why would I sell my home to a family just starting off — and then come fall hurricane season they get flooded? To do something like that? I wouldn't."
Delmonico Hughes, a Towne Gardens man whose walls are splitting and whose garage collapsed years ago, says he's in the same boat. He worries a gas line could "pop" at any time. His block is a study in creative ways to conceal a brick facade, with faux-brick veneer or vinyl siding, but he won't attempt to sell. For him it is, as Nutter once put it, a moral issue. "I'm not that kind of person," he says.
Which is why the upcoming property-tax reassessment is such a sore subject in Eastwick.
For all this, when city Chief Assessment Officer Richie McKeithen was asked at City Council budget hearings how sinking might impact assessments, he admitted it was the first he'd heard of it. He said such deficiencies would be considered on a case-by-case basis, but likely only in the appeals process. "We can only take into account things we know about," he says. "A lot of things we won't know about until taxpayers notify us."
The only other time subsidence came up in budget hearings was when 2nd District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, whose purview includes Eastwick, broached the topic of tax breaks for sinking-home victims.
"Good luck with that one," Council President Darrell Clarke told him. "The tax man cometh."
Almost no homeowner under age 60 wants to talk about improper fill. Even those who have cracks festooned across their brickwork say they haven't heard about a problem. Older residents, whose years of activism were met with indifference or resistance, have mostly given up fighting. Some have sold their homes at a loss, and others have stuffed properties with renters, often low-income immigrants. The rest say they're just waiting — either for salvation or for disaster.
June Bryant and Barbara Johnson both live in Logan on the 4800 block of North Hutchinson Street, the last block standing at the brink of the Logan Triangle. They're not sure who drew the line declaring their homes to be fit and the ones just across the street to be imminently dangerous, but they say it's clear the homes on their block are suffering from the same plight that brought down the Triangle.
"It's plain to see the houses are tilting. They haven't told us, but we've seen it," Bryant says. "I've seen cracks in the foundation. You walk into the middle of the street and your body starts to tilt. They really need to take an assessment of the community within a couple blocks and say to us, 'Y'all's houses are sinking, too,' and not just ignore it. We know the signs. We're just waiting for the city to say it.
"Or maybe we'll have another gas explosion, and they'll be forced to say that to us."
Bryant says she ran out of energy to fight the city on this decades ago. "I know what will happen. They'll start talking all that crazy talk and I'll be stressed again," she says. "They'll tell me no one else has called them with issues, so they feel like it's OK." Her block is mostly renters now, which makes activism even more difficult. "It's been a while since we've been organized as a block," she admits.
And so, she concludes, "We are stuck." Adds Johnson, "Maybe if we were younger, we wouldn't feel so stuck."
In Nicetown, it's the same story. Miguel Moyett's front porch, on the 700 block of West Courtland Street, looks onto a community garden where a cluster of rowhouses used to stand, more casualties of sinking. Another house nearby collapsed, and others have been abandoned rather than repaired. After all, it's tough to sink money into a home you think is going down anyway, he says.
Everything on this block is topsy-turvy: Walls are split, sidewalks have disintegrated. Moyett fears his own house is slowly breaking apart, worthless. His block is so close to the Logan Triangle boundaries, he says, and so clearly exhibiting the same signs of distress, that he can't understand why it was left behind. "They told me this area don't belong to Logan, so they don't do nothing. I bring political people up here, the Spanish guys, and they made promises. But after election day, you don't see them around no more."
There was a time, about a decade ago, when Beverly, the Eastwick resident, thought things were about to change. He and his neighbors made enough noise that Mayor Street met with them, and the city contracted an engineering firm to study Towne Gardens. According to a 2002 L&I memo, the firm found that houses had shifted off their piles, that floor slabs had failed, and that Beverly's block should be considered for demolition. The memo urged further study and repairs. Today, Beverly's still waiting.
As for the rest — Moyett, Serrano, Bryant, Johnson — they've all but given up. "We're here till we literally perish. We spent all our lives working and taking care of our houses, and now we're left with nothing," Serrano says. "If I start worrying about everything that happens in this area, I would be 6 feet under. Let the Lord handle it. I take it one day at a time."