Inquirer Editorial: Fanning the flames

The Buck factory fire in 2012.
The Buck factory fire in 2012. (JOSEPH KACZMAREK)
Posted: February 17, 2014

Neighbors had complained that the former Thomas W. Buck Hosiery factory had become a haven for vagrants, who warmed themselves with fires while scrappers picked away at the pipes and wiring. In the blaze that inevitably followed years of neglect and slipshod code enforcement at the decrepit Kensington building, two firefighters died and two others were hurt. Given high winds that blew embers toward nearby homes and businesses, it's remarkable that there weren't more losses.

But the absentee owners, father and son slumlords Nahman and Michael Lichtenstein - who ripped off the previous owner, let the building decay, ignored numerous citations, and failed to pay their taxes - didn't suffer a scratch.

This maddening injustice is detailed in a recent 110-page grand jury report on the 2012 fire. Not only did the city fail to prevent this disaster with proper code enforcement, but the grand jurors found the criminal code insufficient to hold the owners responsible for the tragedy that resulted partly from their cold-blooded indifference. The legislature should change the law to help authorities punish such parasitic property speculation.

Though they failed to bring criminal charges, District Attorney Seth Williams and the jurors did recommend several reforms that Mayor Nutter and City Council should pursue.

Even though the Lichtensteins had outstanding code violations and unpaid utility bills and taxes, they were able to secure zoning and demolition permits, increasing the property's value. The city should have held up those permissions until violations were corrected and bills were paid.

In addition, although the Department of Licenses and Inspections cited the owners for numerous violations, it never consolidated a case against them. Worse, the jurors found L&I was afraid to go to court lest a judge order it to remediate the building's problems.

Furthermore, while the city sued for back taxes, it sent notices to the wrong address - even though L&I had the right one on file - and the case was tossed.

Finally, it's not clear whether the Fire Department followed proper safety procedures.

The grand jury report shows the city lacks the staff, training, and management to keep up with property speculators. Officials even cleaned up the Lichtensteins' mess, spending $100,000 to demolish the building's charred husk.

Philadelphia will continue to be at the mercy of such predation if it doesn't strengthen and enforce the rules. Blighted properties are dangerous and detrimental to neighborhoods, but they also represent the raw materials for redevelopment. The city can't let scavengers steal its potential.

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