City Howl Help Desk: Who owns that decrepit block? The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority

YONG KIM / Staff photographer
YONG KIM / Staff photographer
Posted: January 26, 2011

THE PROBLEM: Sean Dukes isn't happy with the property owners around the corner from his West Philly home.

Unfortunately, he can't just go complain to them.

Out of a group of three rowhouses, two sit abandoned. Their roofs are caved in, their facades boarded up and marred with graffiti, and several back windows are blown out so trespassers can easily get in.

Next to the houses sits a vacant lot littered with garbage cans and debris, including, strangely, a hot-dog stand.

Dukes calls the block "a menace."

"It's just bringing the neighborhood down," he said. Several residents have complained about dogs on the lot.

This block is hardly the only blighted one in Philadelphia. Often, it's hard for the city to address this issue because many vacant lots and abandoned houses have unclear ownership - the owners have either died or disappeared, and it's difficult to hold anyone accountable.

That's not the case here, though: The property owner Dukes has a problem with is the city's Redevelopment Authority, which owns almost all the properties on the block.

WHY ISN'T THE RDA TAKING BETTER CARE OF ITS PROPERTY? We called the RDA, which bought half the block in 2003 and most of the rest in 2006, to find out why the land is in such poor shape.

The authority quickly took action.

Chrissie Williams-Jackson, director of property management, said RDA workers were sent to clean and seal the rowhouses in response to our call.

Sinclair Savage, who owns the only occupied rowhouse on the block, is responsible for the mess on the vacant lot, and the RDA is issuing him an eviction notice to order him to clear out his stuff.

If Savage doesn't comply, Williams-Jackson said, the RDA will take him to court.

Savage, reached by phone, said that it's too cold for him to move his possessions now and that he's consulting a lawyer to look into his options.

Of course, none of this explains why the RDA didn't address the condition of the block before we called.

Chalk that up to the fact that the RDA owns about 3,200 properties scattered throughout the city, said Michael Koonce, deputy director of real estate. He said that's too many for the authority to check on regularly.

Instead, the RDA relies on neighborhood complaints to find out about problems. "We have limited resources," he said, though RDA workers try to check on properties when they're in the area for other reasons.

Because none of the neighbors has complained to the RDA, the agency didn't know the lot had become full of trash.

Koonce said residents should call 3-1-1 if they have similar problems with vacant RDA-owned properties.

BUT WILL A CLEAN-UP REALLY SOLVE THE PROBLEM? We're glad you asked. No, even after they're cleaned, the properties will still be in bad shape, roofless and marred by graffiti. They'll stay that way until they're in danger of collapse (then the city will knock them down) or until they're sold to a developer.

Getting properties to developers is a big part of what the RDA does. The agency originally bought the properties to convey them to Sansom Street Development, a real-estate company owned by Charles Lomax, Koonce said.

Though the transaction had stalled, the two parties are now again in negotiations.

Koonce is hoping to have a deal in place to present to the RDA board in March; the properties would probably be sold at market value, or about $300,000, he said. The deal has the support of district Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.

Lomax has been buying up properties in the neighborhood for several years with the intention of putting affordable housing on them. He said the economic downturn put his plan to buy all RDA-owned properties in the area on hold.

But he got a call last week - around the time we called the RDA - asking if he was still interested in buying the properties on this block. He met with the RDA on Monday.

Lomax said he's being cautious with development in the area, and he's not sure when the work would be done. "It's hard to speculate until you have site control," he said.

Any agreement would contain a development timeline, Koonce said, and the RDA would be able to take the property back if Lomax doesn't follow through.

Anthony Campisi reports for It's Our Money, a partnership of the Daily News and WHYY. Dealt with city services lately? How did it go? Let us know at thecityhowl.com, e-mail howl@phillynews.com or call 215-854-5855.

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