At a monthly meeting of the Port Richmond West Community Action Network last week, locals were privy to an abundance of important information.
Not only did they get to meet the new commissioner of the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, but they were told how valuable their input is in cracking down on blight; they learned their properties are safe from “eminent domain,” and they were reassured that their concerns about a new home development project wouldn’t fall on deaf ears.
At the meeting, locals first met the new commissioner of the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I), Carlton Williams. Williams said that the most important goal as he enters office is to make sure absentee property owners are held accountable for their properties.
It is a lofty goal that was well received by all in attendance at the meeting, held Wednesday, June 20 at Firm Hope Baptist Church at Auburn and Agate streets.
“I know there are a number of properties here that we need to address,” Williams said. “We can’t just go in there and start tearing them down.”
Locals weren’t shy about their concerns about blighted area properties.
Memories of the fatal fire April 9 at the Buck Hosiery Building in Kensington were fresh, as many cited the dangers that abandoned properties bring to the neighborhood.
Williams said that he currently has a “highly skilled research team” combing through lists of abandoned and blighted properties throughout the city, and that team is working to make sure the ones that are “immanently dangerous” are addressed first.
He said that residents would need to be patient, as oftentimes legal action can delay work to get blighted or abandoned properties out of the hands of delinquent owners and into the hands of those that will take care of them - and pay property taxes on them.
One woman in attendance discussed a property on the 2300 block of Cambria Street that she said wasn’t only an immediate danger to the community, but that L&I inspectors had viewed in the past.
These inspectors, she said, might have missed obvious issues with the property, like a collapsed wall and a front porch that was falling apart.
Williams said that in instances like this, inspectors might have missed something if they viewed the property from the street.
He acknowledged that neighbors know more about property issues because they see the problems on a daily basis, and an inspector can only see what is visible from the street.
He asked residents to contact L&I any time to discuss problem properties and provide inspectors with information they can use when they make a site visit.
“An investigator can’t go on the roof or maybe can’t see in the back. That’s how we can use info from you,” he said.
The next property up for discussion was a sealed property on the 2800 block of Memphis Street.
Locals said that L&I had sealed the building a while back, but when it was sealed, left-behind garbage inside was left to rot.
“It’s full of maggots,” shouted one woman from the back of the room.
Williams took down information on these properties and promised his team would investigate.
At the meeting, City Councilman Mark Squilla (D-1st dist.) also stopped by to discuss the city’s Actual Value Initiative, Mayor Michael Nutter’s tax system that involves reassessments of all properties, which could bring $94 million to the Philadelphia School District. Squilla said that City Council would postpone this measure until next year.
David Fecteau, a community planner for the city’s Planning Commission, talked about how his office can help handle community concerns.
While he discussed how the city’s new zoning code attempts to include community groups - like the PRWCAN - into its decision-making process, residents expressed concern with how “eminent domain” works in the city.
Because of confusion of how eminent domain is used, residents said they feared improving their homes or even supporting neighborhood issues because they worried if the neighborhood looked better, developers might take properties through eminent domain.
Fecteau acknowledged that he often hears similar complaints - especially around parts of Kensington close to Fishtown, where development is growing and longtime residents fear gentrification.
But, he said, that’s not how eminent domain works.
Instead, Fecteau told the audience that eminent domain is a right afforded to local government when the city plans to use property for a civic good – it can generally be implemented to obtain land to create a public park or affordable housing.
Private developers can’t site eminent domain to secure private property.
“If a developer comes to you and says anything about taking your property through eminent domain tell them they’re full of s***,” said Fecteau.
Finally, Nora Lichtash, executive director of the Woman’s Community Revitalization Project, discussed a proposal to bring 36 homes - and 36 parking spots - to a vacant lot at Auburn Street and Trenton Avenue.
However, she said that number isn’t “written in stone,” and that the plan is in its infancy. That land, she said – which is the site of a former carpet factory – would need to undergo testing for environmental hazards and would need to have any contaminants removed from the soil before any work could begin.
Lichtash said the project would take nine months to a year to complete if it’s approved for the area. But last week’s meeting was not a formal presentation; another discussion meeting will be held in October.
“Right now, we have a lot of ideas, but they are just ideas about the site,” she told residents, some of whom expressed concern over the project.
Neighbors worried aloud that the project – which works to provide housing for low-income women and their families – could impact the property values of their homes.
Lichtash replied that the homes would “look like [other] neighborhood homes” and that the WCRP would be willing to work with neighbors to refine the plan in the coming months.
Star Staff Reporter Hayden Mitman can be contacted at 215-354-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org.