Nutter to absentee property owners: See you in court

The city is us­ing a one-two punch to fine own­ers of blighted prop­erty and take them to court.

It’s been said that blight in Phil­adelphia is like por­no­graphy.

You know it when you see it. 

Just as all art with nud­ity isn’t porn, not all va­cant build­ings are blight.

But, on Wed­nes­day, Oct. 26, stand­ing at the corner of Rich­mond Street at In­di­ana Av­en­ue, May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter said he saw plenty of blight.

Of course, no one has to look too far in this neigh­bor­hood. All along Rich­mond Street in Port Rich­mond, vi­brant busi­nesses and res­id­en­tial blocks are pock­marked with va­cant, shuttered prop­er­ties.

And, he said that it is high time the city did something about the prob­lem.

“Let me put all prop­erty own­ers on no­tice right now,” shouted the may­or, set­ting the tone for what was a de­cidedly cranky press con­fer­ence. “Phil­adelphia res­id­ents should not have to put up with this kind of crap in our city any­more.”

Stand­ing at the in­ter­sec­tion where a shuttered bar — the long-closed Stand­ing Room Only — sits across the street from a closed li­quor store and at least three oth­er va­cant prop­er­ties, Nut­ter an­nounced the city’s new push to com­bat blight.

The ef­fort isn’t ex­actly new — the Star re­por­ted on ele­ments of the plan on Oct. 5 — but, with plans to tar­get own­ers of blighted prop­er­ties through costly fines and the means to pro­sec­ute of­fend­ers in court, the new war on blight could fi­nally make some in­roads to­ward com­bat­ing the prob­lem city­wide.

Ac­cord­ing to Nut­ter, blighted prop­er­ties cost city tax­pay­ers about $8,000 per prop­erty due to the drain on gov­ern­ment ser­vices.

Over­all, he said, the 40,000 va­cant prop­er­ties throughout the city ac­count for about $3.8 bil­lion in lost house­hold wealth that would ex­ist if the homes were filled with tax­pay­ing, pro­duct­ive mem­bers of so­ci­ety.

“This is un­ac­cept­able and it must be changed,” said Nut­ter.

Much of the muscle in the city’s drive to tar­get prob­lem prop­erty own­ers comes thanks to Act 90, a piece of state le­gis­la­tion pushed for­ward by state Rep. John Taylor’s (R-177th dist.) of­fice.

An­oth­er ele­ment is a 3-year-old “doors and win­dows” or­din­ance that City Coun­cil­man Frank Di­Cicco (D-1st dist.) cre­ated.

The doors and win­dows or­din­ance al­lows the city to fine prop­erty own­ers about $300 per day for every non-func­tion­ing door and win­dow on every prop­erty they own.

That could add up to hefty pen­al­ties for any prop­erty own­er with mul­tiple blighted prop­er­ties in the city.

But, while that or­din­ance was on the books for some­time, it wasn’t un­til the more re­cent Act 90 took ef­fect that the city had any real power to make ab­sent­ee landown­ers pay.

With the new law, the city can go after a prop­erty own­er’s per­son­al as­sets. In­stead of just slap­ping li­ens on homes the prop­erty own­er has ig­nored for years, the city can now put a li­en on the home that prop­erty own­er lives in.

Some loc­al ex­amples

Nut­ter chose his back­drop with pur­pose. As he dis­cussed fight­ing blight throughout the city, Nut­ter stood in the shad­ows of blighted prop­er­ties owned by John J. Valentino. The city’s De­part­ment of Li­censes and In­spec­tions is tak­ing Valentino to court over fees owed on a num­ber of build­ings.

The L&I law­suit fo­cuses on 3026 and 3028 Sal­mon St., 2984, 2986, 2989 and 3001 Rich­mond St., 2804, 2806 and 2808 E. In­di­ana Ave., all owned by Valentino.

L&I has cited Valentino for over $22,500 in prop­erty vi­ol­a­tions, while rep­res­ent­at­ives from the de­part­ment said Monday that he could face ad­di­tion­al fines for prop­er­ties on Tilton Street.

The de­part­ment is cur­rently re­search­ing those prop­er­ties.

Sev­er­al phone num­bers lis­ted for Valentino were dis­con­nec­ted, and the Star was un­able to reach him for com­ment at a shop he owns in the neigh­bor­hood. 

But state Rep. Taylor said Valentino was pre­cisely the type of ab­sent­ee landown­er he hoped to tar­get with Act 90.

“This Valentino situ­ation is ex­actly why Act 90 was en­acted,” he said. “This was years in the mak­ing.”

Com­bat­ing blight has been Taylor’s pet pro­ject in re­cent years.

Be­fore Act 90 was passed, Taylor said, the city could only put a li­en on a prop­erty, or de­mol­ish it all to­geth­er.

“Now, we can go after you, per­son­ally, for all of the fines on all of your houses,” said Taylor.

‘One door’

Along with a ramped-up ef­fort to fine ab­sent­ee prop­erty own­ers, Nut­ter said the city is stream­lin­ing its hand­ling of city-owned prop­er­ties. In­stead of hav­ing to deal with many agen­cies — in­clud­ing the city’s De­part­ment of Pub­lic Prop­erty, the Phil­adelphia Hous­ing Au­thor­ity and the Re­devel­op­ment Au­thor­ity — people in­ter­ested in buy­ing real es­tate from the city will be offered a “one-stop shop” op­er­ated by the Re­devel­op­ment Au­thor­ity for buy­ing va­cant prop­er­ties. 

“Every­body de­serves a bet­ter sys­tem,” he said. “This is the re­form I’ve been talk­ing about. This is the re­form we need.”

Also, the city’s Mu­ni­cip­al Court will also have a “blight court” to make sure ab­sent­ee own­ers are dealt pen­al­ties in a quick and ef­fi­cient man­ner.

L&I Com­mis­sion­er Fran Burns fol­lowed Nut­ter at the po­di­um last week and said her de­part­ment isn’t fool­ing around.

“You need to com­ply, or here’s what’s com­ing: We will see you in court,” she warned ab­sent­ee prop­erty own­ers.

Burns said that through the new fight against blight, the de­part­ment is con­tact­ing the own­ers of about 17,000 to 20,000 blighted prop­er­ties, and many of them could be taken to court with­in the next year.

So far, she said, her de­part­ment has taken the own­ers of about 80 prop­er­ties to court and has col­lec­ted about $150,000 in fines already.

“You own the damn prop­erty, take care of it,” shouted an un­char­ac­ter­ist­ic­ally crude Nut­ter. “You have a re­spons­ib­il­ity to take care of it … If you’re such a jack­ass that you can’t take care of your prop­erty, the courts will do it for you.”

Hop­ing for bet­ter

After the an­nounce­ment, many on hand at the event seemed ex­cited about the im­pact the new push might have on blight.

“I’m ex­cited that we are mak­ing pro­gress,” said Sandy Salzman, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the New Kens­ing­ton Com­munity De­vel­op­ment Cor­por­a­tion.

As the group of­ten deals with the fal­lout caused by blight, Salzman said le­gis­la­tion that hits ab­sent­ee own­ers in the wal­let is ex­actly what the city needs to do to make a real im­pact.

“This is what we’ve been ask­ing for all along,” she said.

Tom John­son, Demo­crat­ic ward lead­er for Port Rich­mond’s 25th Ward, said blight has hampered Port Rich­mond for too many years.

“Over the years, we’ve had people say they had a vis­ion to turn [Rich­mond Street] in­to Main Street like Manay­unk’s. But, be­cause of all these blighted prop­er­ties, it nev­er happened,” said John­son.

As she poin­ted at The Stand­ing Room Only — a bar she guessed had been closed for dec­ades — Port Rich­mond Town Watch Pres­id­ent Mary­ann Trombetta said blight has been hurt­ing the neigh­bor­hood for a long time.

One home, which she said was on the 3000 block of Agate Street, was left alone for so long, a tree grew through the floor and in­to the kit­chen.

“They need to do this. They nev­er did any­thing about [blighted homes] be­fore,” she said. “This fi­nally makes people ac­count­able … I’m re­spons­ible for my own home, so, why aren’t you, if you own 20 or 30 some houses, not able to be re­spons­ible as well?”

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

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