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. ••EndFragment