City services put some muscle into volunteer efforts

Vo­lun­teers and non­profits have long toiled to tackle the city's 40,000 va­cant lots. A new pro­gram has City Hall do­ing some of the heavy lift­ing — and re­cov­er­ing the costs.

In South Kens­ing­ton, a neigh­bor­hood that stretches from Front to Sixth streets and Gir­ard Av­en­ue to Berks Street, va­cant lots are a sig­ni­fic­ant con­cern.

That’s not unique in a city where more than 40,000 lots — a third of which are city owned — sit va­cant and un­ten­ded.

But in South Kens­ing­ton, the more than 400 va­cant lots aren’t simply trash-strewn plots of land. They of­ten can be dan­ger­ous pock­ets hid­den on darkened streets, where crim­in­al activ­it­ies can oc­cur.

In fact, ac­cord­ing to Natania Schaum­burg, pro­gram co­ordin­at­or for the Kens­ing­ton South Neigh­bor­hood Ad­vis­ory Coun­cil, 25 per­cent of all prop­erty in South Kens­ing­ton con­sists of va­cant — of­ten aban­doned — lots.

“It’s frus­trat­ing,” she said dur­ing an in­ter­view held Thursday, June 23. “It’s demon­strat­ive of neigh­bors that don’t care, and that’s just not true.”

These un­ten­ded spaces, she said, can be where pros­ti­tutes gath­er, where drug ad­dicts flock to es­cape the watch­ful eye of the po­lice or, worse, they can be places where at­ro­cit­ies are com­mit­ted and vic­tims are left in the dark of night un­til they can be dis­covered in the morn­ing sun.

“It at­tracts crime,” she said. “It’s an in­vit­a­tion for crim­in­al activ­ity.”

The body of Sa­bina Rose O’Don­nell, a pop­u­lar wait­ress from North­ern Liber­ties, was found in a va­cant South Kens­ing­ton lot after she was sexu­ally as­saul­ted and strangled last year, Schaum­burg noted.

With so many prob­lem prop­er­ties in the KSNAC’s bound­ar­ies, Schaum­burg said, vo­lun­teers are of­ten over­burdened.

“We have some very ded­ic­ated vo­lun­teers,” she said, “but, there’s only so much we can do. There’s only so much any­one can be ex­pec­ted to do.”

That’s why the com­munity group is now try­ing something dif­fer­ent.

KSNAC has now teamed with the May­or’s Of­fice of Neigh­bor­hood Ser­vices. Schaum­burg said this al­lows the group to keep from con­tinu­ally strug­gling to keep lots clean without sup­port from ab­sent­ee own­ers.

In­stead, KSNAC can bring in city in­spect­ors to fine own­ers for the vi­ol­a­tions on their prop­erty.

In the past, the groups worked sep­ar­ately and Schaum­burg said that by com­bin­ing their ef­forts, the groups make more of an im­pact throughout the com­munity. 

The Of­fice of Neigh­bor­hood Ser­vices has cited prop­erty own­ers for vi­ol­a­tions, but, this would be done through com­plaints made to 3-1-1.

Ac­cord­ing to Thomas Con­way, deputy man­aging dir­ect­or of the May­or’s Of­fice of Neigh­bor­hood Ser­vices, due to the large amount of re­quests this sum­mer, the of­fice teamed with loc­al com­munity groups — in South Kens­ing­ton, it’s with the KSNAC — in a more pro­act­ive way to sup­port loc­al cleanup ef­forts and tar­get prob­lem lots as well as find their own­ers.

Con­tac­ted last week, Con­way said the new ef­fort works like this: His of­fice and the com­munity group set up bound­ar­ies for a cleanup — it’s up to the KSNAC to de­term­ine areas that need to be ad­dressed — then in­spect­ors from the city of­fice in­vest­ig­ate lots in the spe­cified area to find vi­ol­a­tions.

Through a com­munity ser­vice pro­gram, which al­lows non-vi­ol­ent of­fend­ers to do com­munity ser­vice in the city, the city of­fice sends out teams to clean and weed lots.

“Then, the com­munity or­gan­iz­a­tion comes in to rake and bag the grass clip­pings and debris,” he said in an email.

City trucks pick up trash once com­munity vo­lun­teers have fin­ished the work.

It cuts down the work needed from com­munity vo­lun­teers, and through the fines, the pro­gram could see some money brought in­to the city from these long va­cant prop­er­ties — which are of­ten a drain on com­munity re­sources and, if the prop­erty own­er is en­tirely ab­sent, con­trib­ute no prop­erty tax in­come for Phil­adelphia.

Con­way said the prop­erty own­ers are billed for the cleanup ef­fort.

The fee is “de­term­ined by the num­ber of em­ploy­ees, hours they worked, (the num­ber) of vehicles and (the num­ber) of bags used for the cleanup,” he said.

On av­er­age, the cost to clean a lot that’s about 16 feet by 60 feet is between $200 and $300 dol­lars.

“But it could be much high­er if it is full of debris and we have to use front end load­ers and dump trucks,” Con­way said.

How then, does the of­fice com­plete the tricky task of find­ing the own­er of the lot in or­der to charge them for the work?

Con­way said the city’s De­part­ment of Li­censes and In­spec­tions re­cently hired four new em­ploy­ees tasked with track­ing down own­ers of these aban­doned lots.

Once con­tac­ted by the of­fice’s in­vest­ig­at­ors, the prop­erty own­er will have 10 days to clean and green the prop­erty on their own, be­fore the city steps in.

Throughout June, the KSNAC has worked with the Of­fice of Neigh­bor­hood Ser­vices, and Schaum­burg said, already the ef­fort has made a sig­ni­fic­ant im­pact on prob­lem prop­er­ties throughout the com­munity.

“We wanted to take ad­vant­age of the way they [the Of­fice of Neigh­bor­hood Ser­vices] can charge and tick­et prop­erty own­ers,” she said. “We’re already get­ting a huge amount of lots [cleaned].”

In or­der to keep track of the work, the KSNAC has de­veloped a va­cant land data­base which tracks prop­er­ties that need to be ad­dressed as well as en­sur­ing that, as own­ers are found and lots are cleaned, the in­form­a­tion is kept on hand for any fu­ture con­cerns.

The part­ner­ship will con­tin­ue throughout the sum­mer, said Con­way, as due to a “lack of re­sources for our pro­grams,” it could take up to two months for the city of­fice to ad­dress some prop­er­ties.

Re­port­er Hay­den Mit­man can be reached at 215-354-3124 or hmit­ 

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