Living next to a nightmare

A Ser­geant Street fam­ily has lived in the shad­ow of an aban­doned home for years, and it isn’t get­ting any bet­ter.

In the river wards, there is no short­age of stor­ies about night­mare neigh­bors — from hoarders to party houses to drug hangouts — who can make life on cer­tain blocks al­most un­bear­able for every­one else.

But for Mi­chael and Laura Tep­per, their night­mare stems from a lack of a neigh­bor.

When the couple moved in­to their home on Ser­geant Street near Trenton Av­en­ue in 2006, they were happy to meet Robert Brown, an older man who lived in the house next door.

Laura Tep­per de­scribed Brown as a kind per­son, one to al­ways say hello in the morn­ing and wave from his stoop. But after suf­fer­ing sev­er­al strokes, Brown died in 2007.

Shortly after, Tep­per said, a niece from Delaware met with an­oth­er neigh­bor to get a set of keys for her uncle’s house.

That was the last time the Tep­pers saw Brown’s re­l­at­ives at the prop­erty, and the house — now con­demned — spiraled in­to a state of dis­repair, at­tract­ing everything from fer­al cats and opos­sums to drug ad­dicts and thieves.

“It was a little run­down when we moved in, but at least nice people lived there,” said Tep­per. “They had a lot of pride in this one thing that they owned, and it was sad to see this hap­pen.”

Tep­per said Brown had no chil­dren. She and her hus­band have ex­hausted at­tempts to con­tact his niece, even of­fer­ing to take care of leg­al work needed to ob­tain the title.

“It’s sort of been in this limbo ever since,” said Tep­per.

That limbo has be­come a ser­i­ous prob­lem for the couple.

They worry con­stantly about fires, pests and vag­rants.

In April, the couple gave birth to their first child, and they want to know that they’ll be rais­ing their son on a safe block.

They also want to stay in their home on Ser­geant Street.

While the Tep­pers are not in a unique po­s­i­tion — about 300,000 sim­il­arly de­cay­ing, for­got­ten prop­er­ties plague com­munit­ies all over the state — they are ex­plor­ing op­tions to rem­edy the night­mare next door.

Tool to em­power?

In Novem­ber 2008, then-Gov. Ed Rendell signed the Aban­doned and Blighted Prop­erty Con­ser­vat­or­ship Act, le­gis­la­tion that, when ap­plied cor­rectly, can re­turn a dan­ger­ous, aban­doned prop­erty to its days as a valu­able com­munity as­set.

When the Tep­pers star­ted to hear stor­ies about the new law help­ing com­munity groups ad­dress prob­lem prop­er­ties, they wondered if the act could of­fer a way out for them.

So far, though, the le­gis­la­tion has been ap­plied only in a hand­ful of in­stances statewide, and city of­fi­cials and leg­al ex­perts are wait­ing to see how neigh­bor­hoods will make use of the new tool.

In the most ba­sic terms, the act cre­ates a mech­an­ism for in­di­vidu­als, com­munity groups and mu­ni­cip­al­it­ies to pe­ti­tion loc­al courts to grant “con­ser­vat­or­ship” of a prop­erty that is harm­ing a com­munity. Once a con­ser­vat­or is es­tab­lished, that en­tity — be it a neigh­bor or a nearby non-profit group with ex­per­i­ence in re­devel­op­ing prop­er­ties — can be­gin work to im­prove the prop­erty with some de­gree of as­sur­ance that the costs will be re­covered.

The like­li­hood of a con­ser­vat­or re­cov­er­ing the money spent to im­prove a prop­erty is one as­pect that has some ob­serv­ers wary of the act.

“You nev­er really own the land,” said Sandy Salzman, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the New Kens­ing­ton Com­munity De­vel­op­ment Corp.  “It’s not like you get this land and can do something with it.”

Salzman said many blocks in the Fishtown and Kens­ing­ton area suffered in the 1980s and 1990s as fam­il­ies moved out and older res­id­ents passed away, leav­ing empty homes in an area where few in­vestors wanted to buy.

“That’s what happened all over our neigh­bor­hood,” Salzman said of the pre­dic­a­ment that con­fronts the Tep­pers.

Of­ten, an aban­doned home on a block could drag down the qual­ity of life to the point where oth­er homeown­ers simply moved else­where rather than deal with a trouble­some prop­erty caught in leg­al limbo.

While the situ­ation has im­proved in re­cent years as prop­erty val­ues have in­creased in Fishtown and parts of Kens­ing­ton, many blocks still feel the sting of these ghost houses.

Part of the prob­lem, Salzman said, is that the city’s laws were de­signed to make tak­ing over private prop­erty — even prop­erty owned by the de­ceased — a very dif­fi­cult task.

“The laws around prop­erty own­er­ship are al­most sac­rosanct. They made it so that it was very hard to lose your prop­erty, and that is something that goes all the way back to the Found­ing Fath­ers,” said Salzman.

She said the NK­CDC was able to take con­trol of about 150 par­cels of land through em­in­ent do­main when the area was de­clared an “urb­an re­new­al zone” in the 1990s. Since then, the civic or­gan­iz­a­tion has worked to main­tain the va­cant land, draw in new in­vestors and busi­nesses, and cre­ate mod­er­ate-in­come hous­ing.

It could be a gamble

While the NK­CDC holds con­sid­er­able clout as a fed­er­ally fun­ded non-profit, the Tep­pers have far few­er op­tions when it comes to tack­ling the de­cay­ing home next door.

One op­tion would be for them to force the prop­erty to sher­iff’s sale by put­ting up a fee and then bid­ding with oth­ers to take over the prop­erty, which has al­most $4,000 in un­paid prop­erty taxes.

But to the bud­ding fam­ily, that pro­cess comes with in­her­ent risks that make them anxious.

“There are a lot of com­plic­a­tions with a sher­iff’s sale.  The prob­lem is that ninety per­cent of the time people buy the house and sit on it, and it just con­tin­ues to de­teri­or­ate. Or they could sell to a slum­lord,” Tep­per said.

That ba­sic­ally would re­turn them to square one — liv­ing next to a dan­ger­ous prop­erty with little re­course. Adding to the head­aches, the city’s De­part­ment of Li­censes and In­spec­tions con­demned the house in 2009, cit­ing found­a­tion is­sues. The house is slated for de­moli­tion, and marked with an or­ange “X”.

Tep­per sees the con­dem­na­tion as a draw­back for le­git­im­ate de­velopers who might oth­er­wise buy the prop­erty as a re­hab. “No one will buy it be­cause they think it will cost $40,000 to fix,” Tep­per said.

Salzman agreed that a sher­iff’s sale could be a gamble, at­tract­ing spec­u­lat­ors who’d prob­ably do little to im­prove the prop­erty.

“It’s an auc­tion, and you can be out­bid,” ac­know­ledged Salzman, adding that many prop­er­ties bought at a sher­iff’s sale re­main neg­lected. “For the most part, they’re not go­ing to take care of it… . At the most, they’ll pay the prop­erty taxes, but some­times, not even that.”

Salzman said her group hasn’t tried to use the Con­ser­vat­or­ship Act to take over such prop­er­ties be­cause of the risks that come with the re­spons­ib­il­ity.

“We don’t want to be the guinea pig that ends up stuck with something we don’t know what to do with,” said Salzman.

“The last thing we want is a prop­erty with a murky title and we can’t sell it.”

Right now, she said, the group is more cap­able of help­ing neigh­bors care for va­cant land.

Ex­plor­ing op­tions

In the mean­time, the Tep­pers are left to deal with a home that was used to ac­cess their house and a neigh­bor’s house dur­ing a Decem­ber burg­lary.

“I walked to our back yard, and it looked like there had been a tor­nado. I real­ized that someone had tried to break in, and I ran to get out of the house,” Tep­per re­called of the in­cid­ent. “A neigh­bor said he saw the man on the roof of the (va­cant house). He had broken in­to a neigh­bor’s house and stolen something. We worry about it all the time. We’ve caught people try­ing to get back there, and a lot of the time they are drug ad­dicts and they just stare at you like a brick wall and keep go­ing.”

In an at­tempt to pre­vent vag­rants from liv­ing in the home, the Tep­pers have spent money build­ing a fence around the back of the prop­erty, changed the locks, and screwed the front win­dows shut. In all, it was a con­sid­er­able in­vest­ment.

While the Tep­pers are look­ing in­to the Con­ser­vat­or­ship Act as a way to take the work they’ve done to se­cure the house to an­oth­er level — mak­ing it a vi­able prop­erty on the block — some ex­perts say the new law might be a hard road to take if that’s their goal.

Too early to tell

Judy Berkman, a law­yer with Re­gion­al Hous­ing Leg­al Ser­vices in Glen­side, Pa., has draf­ted a prac­tic­al step-by-step manu­al to give non-profits and oth­ers a roadmap on how to best use the new act.

That ex­tens­ive manu­al, com­pleted in May with an ex­ec­ut­ive sum­mary, is avail­able at the group’s Web site,

The pur­pose of the act, she said, is to al­low own­ers of neigh­bor­ing prop­er­ties to use a court-su­per­vised pro­cess to rem­edy a nearby blighted prop­erty and sell it with a clear title to a new own­er.

However, that isn’t the easi­est task to ac­com­plish.

One is­sue that could make the act a tough choice for the Tep­pers and oth­ers is that fin­an­cing for im­prove­ments will be hard to come by. That’s be­cause a con­ser­vat­or does not have a title to the prop­erty, and so far, Berkman said, banks have been re­luct­ant to make such loans. 

“In­di­vidu­als will also have to pay ex­pens­ive leg­al fees in ad­di­tion to pay­ing for costs like a title re­port, court fil­ing fees, and oth­er ex­penses. And the con­ser­vat­or­ship is un­der, and sub­ject to, gov­ern­ment li­ens on the prop­erty, like real es­tate tax, wa­ter, nuis­ance and gas li­ens, which have to be paid be­fore they have the chance to re­cov­er costs,” said Berkman. “Not only that, but the own­er can come back at any time in the pro­cess. So you’re tak­ing on a lot of risk.”

In fact, Berkman said of the cur­rent op­tions for tack­ling a blighted prop­erty, the con­ser­vat­or­ship act is “prob­ably the most com­plic­ated and risky pro­cess.” 

“It’s a great tool to handle a blighted prop­erty in the right cir­cum­stances,” said Berkman, “but it will prob­ably be used spar­ingly un­til there is a sol­id track re­cord of suc­cess­ful out­comes.”

So far, the act has been ap­plied loc­ally in only a hand­ful of cases, and with mixed res­ults.

The first Phil­adelphia pe­ti­tion was filed in Septem­ber 2009 by Ger­man­town Con­ser­vat­ory Inc., a freshly or­gan­ized non-profit claim­ing to rep­res­ent a num­ber of com­munity groups in that sec­tion of the city. But rather than seek to be­come the con­ser­vat­or of a single blighted prop­erty, Ger­man­town Con­ser­vat­ory asked the courts to put the or­gan­iz­a­tion in charge of 330 prop­er­ties and va­cant lots.

That massive re­quest led the First Ju­di­cial Dis­trict of Pennsylvania Court of Com­mon Pleas to re­quire that con­ser­vat­or pe­ti­tions be filed for prop­er­ties rep­res­en­ted by one Of­fice of Prop­erty As­sess­ment (formerly Board of Re­vi­sion of Taxes) ac­count num­ber. The rul­ing ba­sic­ally stated that hope­ful con­ser­vat­ors would have to ap­ply to take over prop­er­ties one at a time, rather than in large bundles.

In two oth­er cases, own­ers of blighted prop­er­ties were forced to come to court to fight ap­plic­a­tions for con­ser­vat­or­ship, and ended up selling the prop­er­ties to the pro­spect­ive con­ser­vat­ors out of court.

In what was prob­ably the most ef­fect­ive in­stance — in terms of the in­ten­ded use of the act — Skip Wien­er, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the non-profit Urb­an Tree Con­nec­tion, took over an aban­doned prop­erty in West Phil­adelphia and turned it in­to a com­munity garden.

The fight from City Hall

Bri­an Abernathy, chief of staff for the city Man­aging Dir­ect­or’s Of­fice, said the Nut­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion is look­ing at the Con­ser­vat­or­ship Act as one of a num­ber of tools that can be used to tackle the glut of aban­doned homes in the city.

Deputy Man­aging Dir­ect­or Brid­get Gre­en­wald has been lead­ing that ef­fort, and said the new act hasn’t been used much in the city. In­stead, her of­fice is ag­gress­ively us­ing Sen­ate Bill 900 — a 2010 act com­monly re­ferred to as the Pennsylvania blight bill.

Us­ing a staff of in­terns to track down ab­sent­ee prop­erty own­ers, Gre­en­wald’s of­fice lever­ages Sen­ate Bill 900 to go after the as­sets of those who have li­ens.

“Once you find an own­er and go after their as­sets, people tend to take no­tice,” said Gre­en­wald.

Of course, in the Tep­pers’ case, such a man­euver is use­less be­cause the right­ful prop­erty own­er is long dead.

When Gre­en­wald hears stor­ies like theirs, she usu­ally re­com­mends them to the Hous­ing Al­li­ance of Pennsylvania, a non-profit that provides res­id­ents with a toolkit for deal­ing with blighted prop­er­ties.

But she ad­ded that, for in­di­vidu­als with lim­ited re­sources, for­cing an aban­doned home to sher­iff’s sale is of­ten the easi­est course of ac­tion.

After a sum­mer of head­aches re­lated to the neigh­bor­ing eye­sore, the Tep­pers are again look­ing at that op­tion.

Most re­cently, drug users broke the gate erec­ted by the Tep­pers and camped out in the house dur­ing Hur­ricane Irene. 

Oth­er neigh­bors have seen ran­dom people com­ing and go­ing at the house.

“The idea that there were crack­heads get­ting high in that place while my son and I were sleep­ing next door dur­ing the hur­ricane, that just really freaks me out,” said Laura Tep­per.

Those ex­per­i­ences have pushed her and her fam­ily to look for a home else­where. 

“To be hon­est, at this point we are just think­ing about when we are go­ing to be able to leave,” she con­ceded. “But it’s go­ing to be really hard sell our home with this place next door.” ••

Re­port­er Bri­an Rademaekers can be reached at 215 354 3039 or

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