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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org