Northeast Times

Landlords come under Council scrutiny

— Fresh­man city coun­cil­man takes aim at neg­li­gent land­lords by for­cing four prop­erty own­ers to tell their side of the story.

Dis­trict 6 Coun­cil­man Bobby Hen­on listens to the re­sponses of two land­lords in Phil­adelphia dur­ing a Li­censes and In­spec­tions and Pub­lic Safety Com­mit­tee hear­ing on bad land­lords around the city, which Coun­cil­man Hen­on ar­ranged, Wed­nes­day, June 20, 2012, Phil­adelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouch­nikova)

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City Coun­cil­man Bobby Hen­on cam­paigned on the is­sue of neg­li­gent land­lords and has spent much of his first six months in of­fice deal­ing with the is­sue.

Hen­on (D-6th dist.) ar­ranged for a joint hear­ing of the Coun­cil Com­mit­tees on Li­censes and In­spec­tions and Pub­lic Safety for last week and took the un­usu­al step of sub­poena­ing four prop­erty own­ers to par­ti­cip­ate in the hear­ing.

“Something is broken, and it needs to be fixed,” he said.

The four land­lords who were sub­poenaed own homes with vi­ol­a­tions in Brides­burg, Ta­cony, Wissi­nom­ing, May­fair, Frank­ford Val­ley, Holmes­burg and Castor Gar­dens. The vi­ol­a­tions are re­lated to high grass and weeds, trash, an­im­al drop­pings, stag­nant swim­ming pool wa­ter and vari­ous in­teri­or and ex­ter­i­or prob­lems.

“These prob­lems start out slow and then they grow,” Hen­on said.

James Walsh and Ray­mond Ho­ge­land ap­peared at the June 20 hear­ing on “neg­li­gent land­lords, prob­lem rent­al prop­er­ties and their ef­fects on the sur­round­ing com­munity.”

Joseph B. Sil­ver­stein, an at­tor­ney for prop­erty own­er Ed­win Bass, wrote a let­ter to Hen­on say­ing his cli­ent was re­cently dia­gnosed with pro­state can­cer and could not at­tend.

The com­pany is­su­ing the sub­poen­as was un­able to loc­ate Wal­ter Ulatowski, who called Hen­on’s of­fice to voice his frus­tra­tion with the fact his name ap­peared on the coun­cil­man’s Web site and in a news­pa­per.

Ulatowski, who owns 86 prop­er­ties in the 6th dis­trict, is­sued the fol­low­ing state­ment to a Hen­on staff mem­ber: “I have no out­stand­ing vi­ol­a­tions. I have prop­erty tax for all of my prop­er­ties ex­cept for two (which have not been paid be­cause they are the re­spons­ib­il­ity of the sher­iff’s of­fice). Land­lords have little rights to reg­u­late ten­ant ac­tions. If ten­ant fails to main­tain a prop­erty, there isn’t any re­course. Ninety-five per­cent of my ten­ants are com­pli­ant when I dir­ect them to make changes. If they do not, the only tool I have avail­able is to take them to land­lord-ten­ant court.”

Walsh, who’s been in the busi­ness for al­most 30 years, owns al­most 500 prop­er­ties in Phil­adelphia, in­clud­ing 33 in the 6th  dis­trict. He ac­know­ledged be­ing be­hind on taxes on as many as 20 prop­er­ties.

In ad­di­tion, Walsh has paid some fines for Com­munity Life Im­prove­ment Pro­gram-is­sued vi­ol­a­tions, but he said he takes oth­er no­tices to Mu­ni­cip­al Court and they are routinely dis­missed for be­ing un­war­ran­ted.

Walsh em­ploys three full-time crews for routine main­ten­ance and to fix prob­lems at his prop­er­ties.

“Once they get a vi­ol­a­tion, they’re out there im­me­di­ately,” he said.

Walsh said grass grows high when there’s steady rain for sev­er­al days, chal­len­ging his crews to cut so many lawns in a lim­ited amount of time.

Some vi­ol­a­tions are ir­rit­at­ing, Walsh said, cit­ing one is­sued last winter for not shov­el­ing snow that ac­cu­mu­lated four or more inches.

“We didn’t get any snow­fall last year that was four inches deep,” he said.

On one oc­ca­sion, Walsh posed as a ten­ant in a tele­phone call to a hous­ing-rights group. He con­ten­ded that ten­ants are re­minded that they’ll be able to stay put and/or not pay rent as long as there is an out­stand­ing vi­ol­a­tion.

“It’s an at­tempt by the ten­ant to stay in the unit as long as they can,” he said.

Ho­ge­land, a May­fair res­id­ent who has been in the busi­ness for about three dec­ades, said he and part­ners op­er­ate about 300 homes, in­clud­ing 28 in the 6th Coun­cil­man­ic Dis­trict. He sug­ges­ted that the city hire a li­ais­on for in­di­vidu­als who have large num­bers of prop­er­ties.

Most of his prop­er­ties are li­censed, he said, and only one owes back taxes, and he’s in ne­go­ti­ations with the city. About 90 per­cent of his prop­er­ties are in com­pli­ance, with the rest await­ing re-in­spec­tion.

Last year, he spent $186,000 to pay main­ten­ance crews. He re­cently hired someone to handle all L&I is­sues, adding that they are usu­ally rec­ti­fied with­in three days.

Hen­on cited stat­ist­ics show­ing that the av­er­age price of a house in the 6th dis­trict sold from 2009-11 was $86,671 if it was with­in 184 feet of a bad land­lord and $109,865 if it was farther away.  

Ho­ge­land doesn’t be­lieve neg­li­gent rent­al prop­er­ties are the sole cause of de­clines in prop­erty val­ues. He poin­ted to fore­clos­ures and the over­all “eco­nom­ic mal­aise.” He ac­know­ledged that some ten­ants have le­git­im­ate gripes about their prop­er­ties, but con­tends that some of the renters are at fault.

“The ten­ants’ be­ha­vi­or is nev­er dis­cussed,” he said.

Hen­on asked Ho­ge­land if pay­ing fines is the cost of do­ing busi­ness as a land­lord.

“I don’t want that cost,” Ho­ge­land replied. “To me, it’s ag­grav­a­tion.”

Hen­on has wel­comed pub­lic com­ment about the is­sue through Face­book, tele­phone calls, his Web site and his City­Hall App.

People were not shy.

“All it takes is a couple of houses like this per block in a neigh­bor­hood like May­fair and, be­fore long, the neigh­bor­hood will look like North Philly,” one per­son wrote on Face­book.

“This prop­erty has over­grown grass 2 feet high. I have lived here for 34 years and nev­er has this prop­erty looked like this,” a wo­man from the 2200 block of Tyson Ave. wrote on the Web site.

Hen­on said that the prob­lems are real, des­pite some of the testi­mony from Walsh and Ho­ge­land.

“Grass doesn’t grow six inches in one week,” he said.

There are 137 prop­er­ties in the 6th dis­trict that are be­ing ren­ted without a val­id li­cense. Sixty-eight of them have mul­tiple main­ten­ance vi­ol­a­tions and are sus­pec­ted of be­ing tax de­lin­quent.

More than $11 mil­lion in prop­erty taxes and fees are owed to the city by own­ers of res­id­en­tial prop­er­ties in the 6th dis­trict. Hen­on said a lot of teach­ers and po­lice of­ficers could be hired with that kind of money.

Tom Con­way, a deputy man­aging dir­ect­or and head of CLIP, said own­ers are giv­en two weeks to rem­edy an ex­ter­i­or prob­lem be­fore his crews will clean it and bill the own­er.

“Our goal is com­pli­ance of the vi­ol­a­tion,” he said.

Stan Cy­w­in­ski, pres­id­ent of the Up­per Holmes­burg Civic As­so­ci­ation, com­plained about an own­er us­ing mere sheet rock to build party walls on a multi-story com­mer­cial prop­erty where the up­per floors were con­ver­ted in­to “apart­ments.” He said un­sa­vory char­ac­ters needed only a ham­mer to gain ac­cess.

Cy­w­in­ski said his group hasn’t had much luck over­all deal­ing with prob­lem land­lords.

“We tend to get a lot of lip ser­vice,” he said.

Alex Bal­loon, com­mer­cial cor­ridor man­ager of the Ta­cony Com­munity De­vel­op­ment Cor­por­a­tion, spoke of a rent­al prop­erty on the 6800 block of Tor­res­dale Ave. A fire there in Janu­ary killed a wo­man, two teen­agers and two dogs.

Today, the prop­erty is boarded up and an eye­sore, and in Bal­loon’s opin­ion the site is chas­ing away cus­tom­ers and busi­nesses. He agreed with Cy­w­in­ski that many land­lords are the prob­lem.

“They’re very dif­fi­cult to reach,” he said.

Writ­ten testi­mony was sub­mit­ted by, among oth­ers, state Reps. John Taylor, Mike McGee­han and Kev­in Boyle; state Sen. Mike Stack; May­fair Civic As­so­ci­ation pres­id­ent Joe De­Fe­lice; Joseph Cas­cer­ceri, pres­id­ent of the Prin­ceton Av­en­ue De­vel­op­ment Cor­por­a­tion; and Wil­li­am Dun­bar, Taylor’s op­pon­ent. Taylor and Boyle also sent aides to the hear­ing.

Coun­cil mem­bers Maria Quiñones-Sanc­hez, Curtis Jones, Dav­id Oh, Jan­nie Black­well and Kenyatta John­son were present for much of the hear­ing.

“I have Coun­cil’s full sup­port in mov­ing for­ward,” Hen­on said.

The hear­ing was re­cessed, not ad­journed, after about three and a half hours of testi­mony. Hen­on an­ti­cip­ates more hear­ings in the fall and even­tu­al ac­tion on le­gis­la­tion he’s in­tro­duced about prob­lem prop­er­ties and their own­ers.

“I look for­ward to con­tinu­ing the con­ver­sa­tion,” he said. ••

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You can reach at twaring@bsmphilly.com.

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