As part of City Councilman Bobby Henon’s (D-6th dist.) “Bad Neighbor Initiative,” four landlords whose properties are seen as detracting from the quality of life in their respective neighborhoods testified at a hearing last week.
Henon last month announced the creation of a “Problem Properties Advisory Council” (PPAC) in the city’s 6th councilmanic district. The 6th District includes Port Richmond and Bridesburg. River Wards neighbors appointed to PPAC are Theresa Costello and Dorothy Jacob of Port Richmond, and Harry Engasser and Joe Slabinski of Bridesburg.
“What Councilman Henon is doing is fantastic,” said Slabinski, president of the Bridesburg Business Association, who attended the hearing, at St. Bernard’s School Hall in Holmesburg. “He’s grabbing these landlords by the throat and saying, ‘Wake up, do something, or we’re going to help you do something.’ That’s putting it in blunt-force terms, but I think it’s what they should do.”
Landlords are classified by Henon as “bad neighbors” if their properties receive three or more property maintenance violations — many of which are issued by the Streets Department —within a year, are designated as unsafe by the Department of Licenses and Inspections, are the subjects of more than three complaints to Henon’s office, are illegally rented, or have been tax-delinquent for two or more years.
Although four landlords showed up, 10 were subpoenaed. All the landlords who testified lived outside Philadelphia. The six landlords who were subpoenaed but did not appear will face summonses to hearings with L&I.
“One guy had 150 properties; he’s doing huge turnover,” Slabinski said. “He can easily pay people to keep up these properties, but it’s all about the bottom line, isn’t it? These guys are making quick, fast money. They all live outside the city. They think, ‘Who cares, I don’t live there.’”
David Della Croce owns about 100 properties in Philadelphia and has a staff of two people to maintain them. He’s received about 100 violations since 2007 from the city Streets Department related to the condition of his properties in Frankford and Torresdale.
“It almost seems like you don’t care,” Henon told Della Croce at one point.
“That’s not true. I care,” Della Croce said. “It’s my business; it’s what I do. I take care of my properties.”
Della Croce does not have a property manager, which is required for landlords who do not live in proximity to their properties. He said he was not aware of that requirement. He also said that violations for not bringing the trash out to the street are not his fault, because his staff is unable to visit every property in an eight-hour workday.
“Trash does matter, and the quality of life in our neighborhoods decreases the value of our homes,” Henon responded.
Landlord Jean Paul Gulle, who owns about 150 units in Northeast Philadelphia and has a staff of 10 people, had received 104 various violations since 2007 from the Streets Department. He said he thought it was a “relatively small” amount of violations, considering the number of properties he owns.
“So, dealing with the city of Philadelphia, you just get tickets for violations, you just move on, that’s usual practice in the industry?” Henon asked.
Gulle responded that he could work with his property manager to send more forceful letters to the tenants who leave rental properties in poor conditions, leading to violations. But he balked at the notion that he should “police [his] own properties.”
Quality-of-life violations and their connection to declining property values and growing blight were the chief concerns of Henon and the other City Council members leading the hearing, including Curtis Jones (D-4th dist.), Maria Quinones-Sanchez (D-7th dist.), Kenyatta Johnson (D-2nd dist.), Mark Squilla (D-1st dist.) and councilmen-at-large David Oh and William Greenlee.
These City Council members, who together make up the Joint Committees on Licenses and Inspections and Public Safety, repeatedly pointed out that it was less expensive for these landlords to pay fines than to pay for repairs or improvements on their properties.
“It’s just sad to me that you don’t understand the pain these tenants go through every night,” Jones told the landlords. “If you take anything away from tonight, it’s ‘Do unto other as you would have done unto you,’” he said, to enthusiastic applause from the audience.
Residents testifying at the meeting about the impact of these landlords’ properties included a Mayfair woman, who said there is a hammer hole in her door from a break-in attempt by a neighbor trying to steal her medication.
The committee acknowledged that tenants, not landlords, are responsible for this behavior, but still urged landlords to take more responsibility.
One resident at the hearing testified that a tenant on the 3000 block of Brighton St. in Mayfair, which is owned by landlord David Dai, actively engaged in prostitution and has caused disruptive behavior for years.
When Dai, who was subpoenaed to appear at the hearing, was asked if he knew about the problem, he testified, “I’m not aware of that. I receive the phone calls, call the tenant and say, ‘What’s going on?’” Dai said the tenant tells him that nothing is going on.
Dai said he visited his properties every two weeks. The complaining neighbor denied that, saying he had never seen Dai visit the properties.
The committee advised the landlords to incorporate stricter language regarding quality-of-life violations into leases for tenants, and to consider punishing their staff and property managers for allowing violations to occur.
“Call my office,” Henon told the landlords. “I want to help you so that you all can come into compliance with everything.
“And for those who snub their nose at the city of Philadelphia,” Henon continued, “We’re going to come after them.”
Reporter Sam Newhouse can be reached at 215-354-3124 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.