Tax delinquency, blight, and one blogger’s fight

How one on­line map may help pin­point tax de­lin­quent land­lords, and what city of­fi­cials are do­ing to stop the prob­lem.

It’s no secret that one of the pre­vail­ing qual­ity-of-life prob­lems in the River Wards, and in the en­tire city, is blight.

Where, then, does blight come from, and how can it be fixed? Sev­er­al city of­fi­cials have spoken to the prob­lem and its con­nec­tion to an­oth­er — tax de­lin­quency.

It took Kens­ing­ton res­id­ent and soft­ware en­gin­eer Chris­toph­er Saw­yer, the blog­ger be­hind Phil­ade­lin­, about five hours to write a tool that cross-ref­er­enced data from the De­part­ment of Li­censes & In­spec­tions’ new web­site — the web­site fea­tures an in­ter­act­ive map of Phil­adelphia prop­er­ties — with real es­tate tax his­tor­ies already avail­able on­line.

Saw­yer’s res­ult was an on­line map, en­titled “De­lin­quent Land­lords,” which was pos­ted on the site in Oc­to­ber.

There are hun­dreds of blue mark­ers cov­er­ing the River Wards and all of Phil­adelphia on Saw­yer’s map. Each de­notes a prop­erty that is in debt to the city of Phil­adelphia for back prop­erty tax, but has an act­ive rent­al li­cense. The map does not in­clude aban­doned or private par­cels, or build­ings that are be­ing il­leg­ally ren­ted out.

“If there’s any­thing that shouldn’t piss you off more as a prop­erty own­er, or as a ten­ant, it’s people who pro­duce in­come from their prop­erty hold­ings but don’t both­er to pay the city its fair share of prop­erty taxes,” Saw­yer wrote along­side the map.

In the River Wards, at least $200,000 in back taxes is owed to the city by the hun­dreds of al­leged rent­al prop­er­ties ap­pear­ing on Saw­yer’s map.

One build­ing on the 3100 block of Rich­mond Street in Port Rich­mond is lis­ted as ow­ing over $13,000.

The map shows an­oth­er on the 2300 block of Mer­cer Street in Fishtown as ow­ing more than $18,000.

A build­ing on the block of 700 N. 2nd St. in North­ern Liber­ties is lis­ted as ow­ing over $9,500 in taxes.

Saw­yer de­clined to be in­ter­viewed, simply telling Star, “The map is there to high­light the city’s fail­ure to do much of any­thing to stop the tax de­lin­quency crisis.”

He did speak, however, as part of a tele­vised seg­ment hos­ted by Jeff Cole on FOX29 last week. On that seg­ment, he asked, “Why is the city hand­ing out these rent­al li­censes at the same time as not check­ing to make sure that these taxes are paid?”

May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter’s of­fice de­clined to com­ment on Saw­yer’s blog. But mul­tiple gov­ern­ment sources told Star that un­paid back taxes are a very real and troub­ling is­sue for Phil­adelphia.

“A sig­ni­fic­ant amount of the de­lin­quency comes from land­lords and prop­erty spec­u­lat­ors who are simply tak­ing ad­vant­age of our in­ef­fi­cient sys­tem,” Coun­cil­wo­man Maria Quinones-Sanc­hez (D-7th dist.) told Star in an email mes­sage. “Our cur­rent sys­tem is not only in­ef­fi­cient for the city cof­fers, it ac­tu­ally in­creases the blight in our neigh­bor­hoods, and des­troys prop­erty val­ues.”

Quinones-Sanc­hez in­tro­duced City Coun­cil Bill 120054 in Feb­ru­ary, which would re­form tax col­lec­tion prac­tices and cre­ate a firm timeline lead­ing to fore­clos­ure on de­lin­quent prop­erty tax ac­counts.

Oth­ers said that the city is, in­deed, mak­ing an ef­fort to re­cov­er these taxes.

“I can’t speak to the ac­cur­acy of the in­form­a­tion on his web­site, be­cause the de­part­ments keep their own data. But I would as­sume he’s pulling li­ens and pub­lic in­form­a­tion from us and whatever oth­er sources are on­line, so I would as­sume that there’s a de­gree of ac­cur­acy here,” said Frank Breslin, deputy rev­en­ue com­mis­sion­er of Phil­adelphia in re­sponse to the in­form­a­tion presen­ted on Phil­ade­lin­quency.

However, Breslin did re­mark that some­times, “These maps and this in­form­a­tion can be very dis­tor­ted.”

He poin­ted out that Saw­yer’s map does not in­dic­ate if prop­erty own­ers are in a pay­ment agree­ment with the city, mean­ing they are pay­ing off their tax debt in in­stall­ments, or if they are bank­rupt, in which case they can­not be sued by the city for their tax debt.

“Ob­vi­ously, there’s a lot of real es­tate tax de­lin­quents out there. But the [rev­en­ue] de­part­ment and the city are do­ing a lot to crack down on tax de­lin­quents,” Breslin said.

Breslin said that the city’s in­creas­ingly hard stance on tax de­lin­quents is proven by the grow­ing num­ber of sher­iff’s sales of seized prop­er­ties. He said they are aim­ing to bring that num­ber up to 600 per month. He also said that prop­er­ties owned by “nuis­ance land­lords” are no longer eli­gible for pay­ment agree­ments.

Aside from the act­ive-rent­al-li­censed prop­er­ties that Saw­yer singled out, the city is also deal­ing with va­cant and aban­doned prop­er­ties.

“The prob­lem is that the city really doesn’t want to be­come a land bank, they don’t want to own these va­cant prop­er­ties, be­cause then it be­comes a li­ab­il­ity. It’s kind of a Catch-22,” said Anne Kelly, City Coun­cil­man Mark Squilla’s (D-1st dist.) chief of staff. “As far as Coun­cil­man Squilla, there’s not a lot he can do, or any city coun­cil mem­ber can do.”

Sen. Mike Stack (D-5th dist.) linked tax de­lin­quency to the broad­er is­sues of blight and neg­lect that led to Kens­ing­ton’s Buck Ho­siery Fact­ory fire in April, which took the lives of two fire­fight­ers. The prop­erty was owned by land­lords who reside Brook­lyn.

“A lot of bad things hap­pen when you neg­lect prop­er­ties, like the Kens­ing­ton ware­house fire,” Stack said.

Stack, whose staff used Saw­yer’s map to count about 100 de­lin­quent land­lords in the 5th state sen­at­ori­al dis­trict, told Star that the city shouldn’t raise taxes on law-abid­ing tax­pay­ers through the “ac­tu­al value ini­ti­at­ive” pro­pos­al, which would re­value Phil­adelphia’s prop­erty par­cels, un­til they can crack down on tax de­lin­quents.

Stack in­tro­duced State Sen­ate Bill 1505 in May, which, if passed in­to law, would pro­hib­it the city “from in­creas­ing the rate of tax­a­tion on any class of real prop­erty own­ers un­til the gov­ern­ing body has achieved a rate of col­lec­tion of such tax at a rate of at least ninety-five per­cent.”

Ad­di­tion­ally, City Coun­cil Pres­id­ent Dar­rell Clarke in­tro­duced City Coun­cil Bill 120652 in Septem­ber, which would double pen­al­ties on prop­erty own­ers ow­ing more than $20,000 in prop­erty taxes. In Oc­to­ber, he in­tro­duced Bill 120815 with Coun­cil­man Bobby Hen­on, which aims to in­crease over­sight of private law firms hired by the city to sue prop­erty own­ers in for­eign jur­is­dic­tions for non-pay­ment of rent and en­sure great­er ac­count­ab­il­ity.

“As the city moves closer to AVI, Coun­cil Pres­id­ent Clarke be­lieves it is more im­port­ant than ever to crack down on scofflaws who own prop­erty in Phil­adelphia and are not pay­ing what they owe,” Clarke’s spokes­wo­man Jane Roh told Star via email.

But Vic­tor Pinck­ney, first vice pres­id­ent of The Homeown­ers As­so­ci­ation of Phil­adelphia (HAPCO), de­fen­ded tax-de­lin­quent land­lords, say­ing that they face high costs – such as a $150 rent­al li­cense fee – and com­pet­i­tion from un­li­censed land­lords who rent out space il­leg­ally.

“Our costs are go­ing up and most of those guys [who owe taxes] you’ll prob­ably find rent to low- to mid-in­come people,” Pinck­ney said. “These people are deal­ing with rent­al bur­dens of 60 per­cent, so a land­lord can’t pass it on, so he‘s prob­ably rob­bing Peter to pay Paul, with Peter in this case be­ing the prop­erty tax.”

Saw­yer doesn’t ac­know­ledge any­where on his blog the in­her­ent dif­fi­culties the city faces in ad­dress­ing these prob­lems. But Phil­ade­lin­quency does in­clude guides on how cit­izens can file com­plaints to the De­part­ment of Li­cense & In­spec­tions, how to per­form a back­ground check on a land­lord, and even an ex­plan­a­tion of blight laws.

“Don’t ig­nore prop­erty is­sues that are near you that af­fect you,” Saw­yer urges cit­izens on his blog. “From over­flow­ing garbage, to an un­se­cured va­cant lot, to a burnt out shell, Pennsylvania and the city of Phil­adelphia already has a rich tapestry of laws that give your loc­al gov­ern­ment the power to do something about it.”

“If you’re dogged and de­term­ined, you will get res­ults,” he con­tin­ued.

On the FOX29 seg­ment, Cole re­por­ted that the may­or’s of­fice said it is “plan­ning to hire a com­pany to de­vel­op soft­ware which will provide an auto­mated fix to the prob­lem,” and that the pro­cess will take a year.

Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, the of­fice also stated it would re­view 90,000 rent­al li­cense re­new­als in Janu­ary, and claims it will “press land­lords to pay up.”

Re­port­er Sam Ne­w­house can be reached at 215-354-3124 or at sne­w­

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