Judge runs illegal rentals Rayford A. Means lacks permits for the rooming houses and is violating zoning law, records show.

Posted: September 23, 2007

For years, a Philadelphia judge has run illegal rooming houses in Southwest Philadelphia, adding more woes to an already troubled neighborhood, an Inquirer investigation shows.

Common Pleas Court Judge Rayford A. Means rents rooms in two dilapidated buildings he owns on Greenway Avenue without required licenses and in violation of city zoning law, according to records and current and former tenants.

The judge has crowded as many as seven tenants into one house, neighbors and tenants say, even though only single-family homes are allowed on that block.

FOR THE RECORD - CLEARING THE RECORD, PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 25, 2007, FOLLOWS: A story in Sunday's Inquirer about two illegal rooming houses operated by Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Rayford A. Means mistakenly reported that the judge did not have a business-privilege license. The incorrect information was provided by the city Department of Licenses and Inspections. Gayle Johns, an agency spokeswoman, said yesterday that the mistake was the result of "an internal error in our licensing unit."

"That's not permitted," said Eileen Evans, deputy commissioner of the city Department of Licenses and Inspections. As a result of the newspaper's inquiries, she said, the agency is investigating.

Records show that Means has failed to obtain required city licenses, and he hasn't listed any rental income on his financial-disclosure forms for the last 10 years.

A third unlicensed rooming house Means operated on the same block had no smoke detectors, no fire alarm and no running water when it caught fire in 2005, according to the Fire Department. Means later sold the house. City housing regulations require smoke detectors and alarms in rooming houses.

Means did not respond to repeated requests for comment, including a request made in writing. He would not meet with a reporter who went to his courtroom.

Two weeks ago, after The Inquirer began asking questions, the judge obtained rental licenses for his Greenway Avenue properties. In that area, because of zoning, those permits allow him to rent only to a single family.

But the twin-style houses, with peeling paint and overgrown yards, have been home to numerous renters over the years, some of them felons, according to records and interviews. Means would show up on Saturdays in his black Mercedes to collect the rent, about $300 per month each, former tenant Clinton Stewart said.

Some of the tenants have drug problems, Stewart said, making the buildings a magnet for addicts and prostitutes.

"I called the police several times," said Stewart, who lived at 6013 Greenway Ave. several years ago. "There were hookers running in at all times of night. Crackheads smoking in the basement."

Stewart said he also called Means' judicial office - to no avail.

"I put complaints in on his job phone," Stewart said. " 'There's people in your house smoking crack. I want you to do something about it.' " Stewart said he had never gotten a response.

"How can you be a judge and let this happen?"

Means, who has been on the bench since 1992, recently sparked a furor by paroling a former University of Pennsylvania professor convicted of sexual assault.

As The Inquirer reported in April, a second Philadelphia judge, Willis W. Berry Jr., owns a string of derelict properties in North Philadelphia that have drawn complaints from tenants and violations from L&I. After the newspaper's report, Berry cleaned up some of his debris-strewn lots, and the city reclaimed a building that it had sold him in exchange for a promise that he would fix it up.

Means' properties are in an area ravaged by drugs, crime and violence. Community leaders say illegal housing only adds to the problem.

"It's a mess over there," said Anna Brown, a Democratic ward leader and neighborhood activist. "I've had complaints about that area. There's a lot of loitering, drugs and gangs hanging out."

The judge's rooming houses sit on a block of twin homes, many with bars on the windows, where some homeowners are struggling to keep the neighborhood from slipping into decay.

Some homes have freshly swept porches and flowers blooming in the tiny fenced yards. Others, faded and crumbling, sit on weed-choked lots.

Rooming houses "don't belong" on the block, Brown said.

"We have a lot of wonderful people living over there that really can't afford to live anyplace else," she said of the homeowners there. "They're really victims of their circumstances."

One neighbor who asked not to be identified said the judge rented out rooms in both buildings, keeping a half-dozen tenants in each. "It's a rooming house," she said. Nonetheless, the woman said, she had no complaints about the current tenants.

Means, a former prosecutor who lives in West Philadelphia, handles criminal cases in Common Pleas court.

He drew outrage from prosecutors and women's groups with his sentencing of former Penn professor Tracy McIntosh, who sexually assaulted a graduate student.

Means paroled McIntosh after six months of house arrest.

A McIntosh defense lawyer said this month that the light sentence reflected a deal with prosecutors. A week earlier, Means agreed to step aside and let another judge resentence McIntosh, saying: "In my heart of hearts, I know what both sides bargained for."

Means also made headlines in 1999 when he sued Tredyffrin police, saying he was pulled over and questioned in the predominantly white suburb just because he was African American. The case ended with a settlement that included racial sensitivity training for township police.

Means has dabbled in real estate for years. He bought the property at 6013 Greenway Ave. at a sheriff's sale for $5,000 in 1995. Five years later, he paid $26,000 for the house next door.

He also bought and sold two other properties on the block, including the one damaged by fire in 2005, which he sold at a loss.

Neighbors and tenants say Means operated all four buildings as rooming houses.

The judge failed to list rental income from the properties on his financial-disclosure forms. Pennsylvania judges are required to file annual statements of financial interest, detailing all sources of "gross income" over $1,300 a year.

Judges who demonstrate a "knowing and willful failure" to report required information on such forms can be subject to misconduct charges.

Lawyer Samuel C. Stretton, an expert on judicial ethics, said the omission was serious.

"You have to list it," he said of rental income. "The whole purpose of the form is disclosure."

Another expert said it was difficult to say whether such a failure would violate disclosure rules. Unless a judge turned a profit on a property, it might not technically count as "income" for purposes of the form, said William I. Arbuckle 3d, former chief counsel to the state Judicial Conduct Board.

Means also failed to obtain a number of approvals required to rent property in the city.

For starters, Means does not have a business-privilege license, which the city requires of all landlords.

"They're doing business in the city of Philadelphia. They're collecting money, and taxes must be paid on the money they're earning," said Gayle Johns, L&I spokeswoman. "That's a way of the city keeping tabs on the money."

City revenue officials declined to discuss Means' taxes, citing confidentiality rules.

Philadelphia also requires licenses for all rental properties, and inspections for all rooming houses.

"We have to make sure that the place is, number one, legally zoned, and has the proper licenses and that everything is up to code," Johns said.

The Greenway Avenue properties had no such inspections because the city was not notified that they were operating as rooming houses, she said. In any case, the zoning does not permit that use, she said.

Neighbors and tenants say several unrelated renters live in each of the two houses. They pay about $300 a month each for a room, and shared kitchen and bath privileges, tenants say.

Stewart, 49, who described himself as a recovering drug addict, rented from Means for about a year. He said he had paid $325 a month for a second-floor bedroom in a house with six other men.

An ex-tenant is critical

"There were four guys in bedrooms, two guys living in the basement, and one guy on the couch," said Stewart, a former restaurant worker who now collects Social Security disability.

The place was dirty and shabby, he said.

"There was nothing in there," Stewart said. "Some pictures on the wall, just to make it look like something. A lamp, a little table in the dining room. There was a phone there, but you had to put a quarter in it."

The building leaked when it rained, Stewart said. The basement filled with water and mud, he said, and puddles collected in the front hallway. On one rainy day in 2001, Stewart said, he slipped and fell in a wet hallway, spraining his arm.

He sued Means and received a $3,000 settlement, court records show.

One of Means' current tenants, William Reeves, described the rentals as spartan accommodations that cater to people with little money and few options.

"It's hard to find something," said Reeves, 53. "I can't beat the price. Under $400, I got to go for it.

"I'm on Social Security disability," he said. "Can't live off of it. Can't make it to the end of the month."

Reeves, who spent 10 years in prison for stabbing his mother, rented a room from Means after his release in 2002 and has been there since.

A current one is satisfied

He's one of several tenants in a dingy, two-story twin with a ripped screen door, broken doorbells and no phone. The judge's building next door has an overgrown yard, and black garbage bags taped to the upstairs windows in place of curtains.

"I got no complaints," said Reeves, sitting on the front steps, wearing torn clothes and bedroom slippers. "The man's a judge. I ain't looking to go back to jail."

Reeves said that there had been periodic problems with leaks, but that Means was an attentive landlord. "If it's leaking in there, we get a word to him, he'll have it fixed."

Tenants said the judge stopped by once a week to collect the rent, which is paid with cash or a money order.

"He pops up every Saturday, early in the morning," said Stewart, the former tenant. "He comes in and collects his money, drives a black two-seater Mercedes."

Most tenants do not have written leases, relying on oral agreements that run month to month, court records show.

Over the years, Means has evicted a handful of tenants who failed to pay rent.

In 2004, he filed criminal charges and moved to oust Leslie Williams after her rent checks bounced, leaving a $1,210 debt.

At a court hearing, Williams was ordered to pay the judge $100 per month, cash or money order, taking the payment each month to his office at the courthouse.

Means' properties have a history of code problems and tenant complaints.

In the 2005 fire, which police say was set by a mentally disturbed tenant and caused no injuries, fire investigators found that the property did not have smoke detectors and fire alarms.

The city did not charge Means with violations, however. Johns said code inspectors never got the information from the Fire Department. Fire officials could not explain why.

In 2002, a tenant at 6013 Greenway called to report a defective stove, and L&I issued a violation notice, Johns said. In 2004, a tenant at a property Means owned at 5940 Greenway complained of flooding in a basement apartment, but withdrew the complaint.

The previous year, the city received a complaint that the building was operating as an illegal rooming house. An inspector went to the property but could not get in, Johns said, and the case was closed.

Contact staff writer Nancy Phillips at 215-854-2254 or nphillips@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writers Dwight Ott and Craig R. McCoy contributed to this article.

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