The president of Philadelphia’s leading organization of real estate agents is fed up with the city’s inability or unwillingness to collect delinquent taxes and he’s looking for others who share his disgust. More specifically, he wants agents who work or live in the Northeast to hop on board.
It makes perfect sense, according to Allan Domb, president of the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors. After all, out of more than $490 million in delinquent property taxes citywide, only about $23 million — 4.7 percent — is due on properties within nine ZIP codes that encompass the vast majority of the Northeast, excluding southern portions of Frankford, Oxford Circle and Lawncrest.
Simply put, “The Northeast has the lowest level of real estate tax delinquency” in the city, Domb told the Northeast Times in a recent interview.
GPAR gleaned those figures through its own research leading up to this year’s implementation of the Actual Value Initiative, a city program designed to overhaul and streamline Philly’s complicated property assessment and taxation formula. GPAR launched its study to ensure that the city wasn’t trying to implement what many cynics feared would amount to a backdoor tax increase. In the process, GPAR shed new light on the staggering delinquency rates, including geographic breakdowns by ZIP code and councilmanic district.
Since then, GPAR has made it a priority to provide city government with the tools and the will to realize those missing funds, which could help public schools avert financial Armageddon while boosting other public services. Perhaps surprisingly, the Northeast has been underrepresented in the Realtors’ effort, as the level of GPAR membership is relatively low in the Northeast compared to other areas of the city.
The Pennsylvania Department of State’s Real Estate Commission licenses real estate professionals in numerous categories. Almost 3,000 standard salesperson licenses are active in Philadelphia,, according to the department, in addition to several hundred “associate,” “sole proprietor” and “corporate partner” licenses that often overlap with the salesperson licenses.
There is no requirement that those folks join GPAR, whose members co-founded the National Association of Realtors in 1908. GPAR has about 1,800 members, according to Executive Director Diane Lucidi. Although a geographic breakdown of membership is not readily available, Lucidi said that, anecdotally, the Northeast has less of a concentration than other areas of the city. Many decide to join Realtor associations in suburban counties, perhaps because the initial cost is cheaper, or they don’t join any association.
The distinction can be confusing. “Real estate agent” is a general term for any licensed professional. “Realtor” is a specific, restricted term limited for use with members of the NAR and its state and local affiliates.
“It’s important to distinguish a Realtor from a licensee,” Lucidi said. “A Realtor is a professional who is held to certain standards. That’s important to the consumer because, at the end of the day, there are safety nets and safeguards [with a Realtor]. There is a level of education. Every two years, Realtors need to take continuing education courses and every four years quadrennial training, which updates them on the code of ethics. It’s important.”
Membership is also about professional development and advocacy for both members and the public, according to Joe Rey, a Fox Chase-based Realtor and secretary of the GPAR. For instance, the association hosted a recent seminar at Moshulu, where five of the city’s top-selling agents shared strategies and tips.
“I learn a lot from being with them and doing things where you pick up techniques and learn how to be a better Realtor at the end of the day,” Rey said.
In an effort to expand GPAR’s influence in the Northeast, Rey helped the association organize a series of networking events at the Fraternal Order of Police hall on Caroline Road. One recent gathering attracted more than 150 members and non-members, including agents and folks in affiliated sectors such as mortgage and building trades. The functions are social and charitable. At one, attendees raised funds for the family of a GPAR member who had passed away suddenly.
“It’s been my focus to run more events in the Northeast to get more real estate agents involved with GPAR and all the good things that we’re doing for the city in general,” Rey said.
According to Lucidi, a South Philadelphia native, the association also helps members with the day-to-day issues they face. In one case, an agent went to the Municipal Services Building to settle a tax bill for a client, only to discover that the city had enacted a new $100 “expeditor” fee for the routine transaction. The agent called the GPAR office. Lucidi contacted City Council, which within a month amended the fee to exempt real estate agents — not just Realtors, but all agents.
Domb, who is based in Rittenhouse Square and operates citywide, is always working on the bigger picture. Last fall, he lobbied Council to pass a law that would allow the city to collect on its unpaid taxes though the sale of liens on delinquent properties. In addition to outstanding real estate taxes, property owners owe the city about $370 million in delinquent water/sewer and gas bills. Council passed the measure 15-2 in October. The mayor signed the bill in November.
“We did an analysis and actually think that between $350 million and $500 million could be collected” through a lien sale, Domb said. “And of that amount, 55 percent would go to the school system. And they need money. … The day after the legislation passed, I got an email from a tax lien company in Jersey offering $250 million for the liens, which tells you they’re worth a lot of money.”
A lien sale has yet to occur. Some critics fear that lien sales would lead to mass foreclosures in the city, with the areas of highest delinquency generally in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Domb counters that fewer than 1 percent of tax lien sales nationally end up in foreclosure.
Outside of the unpaid tax problem, the GPAR behind Domb’s leadership is working hard to keep and expand the city’s property tax abatements for new construction. The association views it as an economic engine that brings development, jobs and residents into the city. Meanwhile, the GPAR has successfully opposed a statewide effort to change school funding from a real estate tax-based model to one based on wage and sales taxes. A bill to do that never made it out of legislative committee last spring, despite advocacy by the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors.
GPAR opposed it because the measure would’ve provided for full funding of public schools outside of Philadelphia but only 80 percent of the city’s schools, according to Domb.
“We were the only association in Pennsylvania that went against it. I think it’s dead,” he said. “What was unique about us was we went against the tide.” ••
For information about the Greater Philadelphia Assoociation of Realtors, visit www.gpar.org