Elmer Smith: Couple turn to Net to cut city red tape

Rowhouse frame with no roof, door or windows on Manton Street.
Rowhouse frame with no roof, door or windows on Manton Street.
Posted: March 02, 2010

ANTOINETTE JOHNSON and Tyler Westnedge could be the poster kids for the city's efforts to hold onto its college graduates.

Raised in the suburbs but educated at Temple University, they decided to set down roots in the town where they went to college. Two years ago they bought a house in the 1900 block of Manton street, a short walk from Johnson's graphic-design business.

They settled into the neat, three-story rowhouse, met the neighbors on their integrated South Philly block, and became part of the urban landscape.

But somewhere between once upon a time and happily ever after, their urban fairy tale took a decidedly dark turn.

The house next door was little more than a shell. Builders had gutted the lot and put up a neat brick front. But construction was halted when the builders or owners failed to get proper permits. That left it with no doors, no windows and no roof.

It was an eyesore. But Johnson and Westnedge believed that the owners, Marcon Holding, LLC, would finish it and there would finally be someone living next door.

Two years later, the place is still a vacant facade and their only new neighbors are mold, mildew and microorganisms. No telling what may float to the surface when the blizzard of 2010 melts and deposits a few more inches of stagnant water in the basement.

They said that the wall they share with the shell next door has been stained and damaged by rain. They're afraid that mold from next door is a health hazard, and the wood in their staircase is rotting from seepage from their common wall.

"The drywall was so soaked," Johnson said, "if you touched it, you'd leave a hand print. We had to tear it out."

The exposed brick where they tore out the drywall is soaked through now.

You could file this under "spit happens," if that were the whole story. This could have happened anywhere.

What makes it a Philadelphia story is a maze of red tape and a series of Catch 22s resulting from the city's lame attempts to intervene.

"I filed 11 complaints myself starting on Nov. 29, 2008," Johnson said. "But L&I records show that there was a complaint a year before mine.

"L&I came out twice but there was no follow-up. Nothing was happening. The L&I Web site was down for a long time so I couldn't even follow it.

"Someone came out from the builder a few times. But they really didn't do much about it."

After failing to get any action from L&I, they complained to the city's 3-1-1 information line, which sent their complaint back to L&I. They made a few turns in that bureaucratic cul-de-sac before trying a new tack.

"That's why I went to SeeClickFix.com," she said. "At least with them you can see what is happening with your complaint."

The interactive Web site is catching on all over the country. It tracks complaints about city agencies and gives subscribers a chance to talk with each other about the progress of their complaints.

"A lot of it is little stuff," said Ben Berkowitz, CEO and co-founder of the Web site. "You have people who complain, for instance, about a storm drain. We see to it the complaint gets heard.

"The unique thing is that people then follow up and let each other know what happened. It's not always the city that solves the problem. Sometimes subscribers clear the complaint and tell each other."

It's been 35 days since Johnson filed with SeeClickFix. So far, no success story to report. But they're hopeful, and they're still sold on city life. It's going to take more than this to drive them out.

"There is a trend with new construction in this neighborhood," she said. "You just have to know what you're getting into.

"If we can get this resolved soon, it would only take about $9,000 to fix the damage. We're not giving up on it."

They may be just tough enough for life in the city.

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: http://go.philly.com/smith

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