Northeast Times

NE pols take aim at absentee landlords

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When state Rep. Kev­in Boyle can­vassed the 172nd Le­gis­lat­ive Dis­trict in 2010 while cam­paign­ing against long­time in­cum­bent John Perzel, he learned what most wor­ries the people who live there.

Bobby Hen­on dis­covered the same primary con­cern among res­id­ents as he walked door-to-door in his 2011 cam­paign for City Coun­cil’s 6th Dis­trict seat, which be­came avail­able with the re­tire­ment of Joan Kra­jew­ski.

Boyle and Hen­on, both Demo­crats, each won their elec­tions, largely on their shared in­terest in do­ing something about nuis­ance rent­al prop­er­ties in North­east neigh­bor­hoods like Ta­cony, May­fair and Holmes­burg.

Last week, Hen­on told state House mem­bers about his pro­posed rem­ed­ies dur­ing a Demo­crat­ic Policy Com­mit­tee hear­ing or­gan­ized by Boyle in the North­east.

“Since I took of­fice last year, I’ve been try­ing to bring to the at­ten­tion of city of­fi­cials a prob­lem that’s af­fect­ing so many neigh­bor­hoods,” Boyle said after the Feb. 21 hear­ing at CORA Ser­vices in Fox Chase. “When I was go­ing door to door, spe­cific­ally in May­fair, Ta­cony and Holmes­burg, that’s really when I heard the com­plaints.”

Hen­on has a sim­il­ar goal: “I want to identi­fy the prob­lem of nuis­ance prop­erty own­ers and neg­lect­ful ten­ants to the policy com­mit­tee and say that I’m work­ing on some things here in the city. And I hope [the state] does the same.”

The Demo­crat­ic Policy Com­mit­tee is a par­tis­an group of House mem­bers that helps their caucus de­vel­op its le­gis­lat­ive pri­or­it­ies for fu­ture House ses­sions. House terms are only two years, so Boyle is now in the midst of his first re-elec­tion cam­paign. Phil­adelphia pub­lic school teach­er Dan Collins is chal­len­ging him in the primary, which is sched­uled for April 24.

Spe­cific­ally, Boyle and Hen­on are talk­ing about prop­er­ties that have been al­lowed to fall in­to dis­repair and renters who seem to care little about liv­ing up to tra­di­tion­al com­munity stand­ards. Typ­ic­ally, nuis­ance prop­er­ties may have over­grown weeds, trash or an­im­al drop­pings in the yard. And they may be host to myri­ad dis­turb­ances such as loud mu­sic or drug activ­ity.

Much of the hear­ing testi­mony al­luded to so-called “ab­sent­ee land­lords” as a key com­pon­ent of the prob­lem. In short, dur­ing the real es­tate boom of the early 2000s, many out-of-city and out-of-state spec­u­lat­ors bought up prop­er­ties in the af­fected neigh­bor­hoods. Mean­while, many long­time res­id­ents were more than happy to sell their homes at in­flated prices, leav­ing former neigh­bors to cope with a lit­any of renters.

“Since the in­flux of renters, the is­sues re­lated to these renters have ris­en abund­antly,” said Joe De­Fe­lice, pres­id­ent of the May­fair Civic As­so­ci­ation and chair­man of the May­fair Com­munity De­vel­op­ment Cor­por­a­tion.

“No longer could a neigh­bor, in many cases, simply knock on a door and ask the per­son who an­swers the door to fix their side­walk, put lids on their trash cans, turn their mu­sic down, etcet­era. This be­came dif­fi­cult be­cause the amount of turnover in these rent­al prop­er­ties pro­duced new faces quite reg­u­larly,” he said.

Com­munity lead­ers have tried to reach out to non-res­id­ent land­lords with lim­ited suc­cess. Some land­lords play a shell game with their own con­tact in­form­a­tion on pub­lic doc­u­ments such as tax re­cords and util­ity ac­counts, us­ing ten­ants’ names and P.O. box ad­dresses.

Oth­er land­lords are more re­spons­ive but can’t seem to keep ten­ants in line.

“I per­son­ally spent my last two Sundays on the phone with a land­lord from Mont­gomery County about get­ting his ten­ants to be more re­spect­ful [to neigh­bors],” De­Fe­lice test­i­fied. “This has led to both the land­lord and Town Watch pres­id­ent stak­ing out the house and doc­u­ment­ing the is­sues, which range from loud mu­sic to abund­ant dog fe­ces to us­ing the back bed­room win­dow as a trash shoot in­to the back yard.”

Hen­on said he in­tends to launch a series of ini­ti­at­ives to reign in nuis­ance prop­erty own­ers and ten­ants. On his Web site, bobby­hen­on.com, the coun­cil­man has pos­ted a “Bad Neigh­bor Map,” which marks prop­er­ties in his dis­trict that have mul­tiple city code vi­ol­a­tions or rent­al vi­ol­a­tions, and which have de­lin­quent prop­erty taxes.

“I have data that proves a dir­ect cor­rel­a­tion between a prop­erty value de­crease on blocks where there’s one prop­erty with three or more code vi­ol­a­tions,” Hen­on said.

He en­vi­sions an “ag­gress­ive PR cam­paign” warn­ing land­lords and renters to com­ply with city codes and or­din­ances or face pos­sible sanc­tions such as the with­hold­ing of rent from land­lords, fines and civil law­suits.

“We want to edu­cate every­body on what the laws are, al­most like an am­nesty peri­od, then start go­ing after the worst of the worst,” he said.

Boyle and his col­leagues in Har­ris­burg are con­sid­er­ing com­ple­ment­ary state meas­ures.

“The most ex­cit­ing idea we’re look­ing in­to is sus­pend­ing someone’s driver’s li­cense for vi­ol­at­ing vari­ous hous­ing codes. That would cer­tainly get their at­ten­tion,” Boyle said.

Le­gis­lat­ors are also con­sid­er­ing for­cing land­lords to put a “real ad­dress” rather than a P.O. box on prop­erty doc­u­ments, while cre­at­ing a state-man­dated renter re­gistry. Some mu­ni­cip­al­it­ies already force land­lords to re­gister, but there is no statewide uni­form­ity.

In the case of out-of-state land­lords, there may be some fed­er­al re­lief avail­able.

“I do think there are some in­ter­state com­merce is­sues that we haven’t ex­plored,” Boyle said. ••

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You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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