City Howl Help Desk: What to do about lots & lots of dirty lots

A really bad lot might even have an abandoned truck on it - although probably not quite as long-neglected as this one.
A really bad lot might even have an abandoned truck on it - although probably not quite as long-neglected as this one.
Posted: September 22, 2010

THE PROBLEM. Betty Purvis has a vacant lot next door to her home.

The lot is usually overgrown with weeds, and there's a small red pickup truck sitting in it, filled with trash bags. Purvis calls it a "health hazard."

Purvis, of Brewerytown, says she called about nine city numbers to ask for the lot to be cleaned. The city finally came out and cut the weeds on Friday, but the truck is still there.

Purvis complains that cleaning is infrequent and wants to know who to call the next time the weeds start to get out of control.

WHO'S JOB IS IT? Most of the 40,000 or so vacant parcels in the city are in private hands. That means private owners are theoretically responsible for keeping the grass mowed and the grounds free of litter.

When they don't, it's Tom Conway's job to pick up the slack. Conway is the head of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services, which responds to complaints about vacant lots.

When someone complains to the city about a vacant lot - through 3-1-1 or Conway's office's website www.phila.gov/qualityoflife) - Conway's office sends an inspector to survey all the vacant lots on the block where the complaint was made.

The city then sends out any violation notices needed to the lots' owners, and cleans any property that still poses a problem.

In Purvis' case, Conway says the system worked the way it was supposed to. One of her calls reached the right person (3-1-1 should have been adequate), Conway's office cleaned the lot and referred the truck to police. If the truck fits criteria for an abandoned vehicle, the city will tow it.

A LOT OF CLEANING TO DO. Purvis isn't wrong, however, when she complains that the next-door lot is cleaned infrequently.

Thanks to budget cuts, the city has about $1.5 million to clean about 8,000 lots this year - not enough to keep neighbors satisfied, Conway says. Before the budget crisis, Conway had about $2.5 million and managed to clean about 18,000 lots a year.

Now he's trying to stretch his dollars further. Instead of responding to individual complaints as they come in, Conway's office divides up the city by ZIP code, addressing all the vacant lots in a given ZIP at once. He admits that this means some people might have to wait longer to get a lot cleaned, but organizing the program this way concentrates resources more effectively.

GETTING GOOD INFO. Given that the city can't clean every lot that needs cleaning, Conway says it's important to be honest with people who call 3-1-1 to report a problem on a vacant lot. He says 3-1-1 operators should be able to give callers a rough date when to expect a cleanup crew by looking at when crews are scheduled to hit a given ZIP code.

We decided to test this out by calling 3-1-1 to report an overgrown lot in Kensington. We asked the operator when we could expect the lot to be cleaned. She told us the city responds to all cleanup requests within 90 days, but was unable to give any more details about when crews would be in the neighborhood.

Told of this, Conway said he would talk to 3-1-1 supervisors about making the cleanup schedule more accessible to operators and would post it online.

ANOTHER IDEA. While cleaning can temporarily alleviate the effect a vacant lot has on a block, eventually the weeds grow back and the city is back where it started, fielding complaints from angry residents who want the lot cleaned again.

A more permanent solution to Purvis's problem would be to get the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to take over management of the lot.

Through a contract with the city, PHS targets lots in key areas, cleaning, landscaping and maintaining them in the hopes of sparking redevelopment throughout a neighborhood.

PHS maintains about 5,000 parcels through this program and has enough federal money to add 225 to 250 parcels to that total this fiscal year, according to Bob Grossman, director of Philadelphia Green, the PHS program that administers the program.

Though PHS can't take over more than a fraction of the city's vacant lots, Grossman says that Purvis' lot might fit the bill because it's near several other lots the agency manages, and is in a neighborhood that's been targeted by developers for construction.

Grossman says people should contact their district city council member (in Purvis' case, Darrell Clarke) to request that a lot be evaluated by the program.

Got a vacant lot that needs cleaning? Report it to the city, and let us know how it goes at www.thecityhowl.com or 215-854-5855.

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