Inquirer Editorial: License to neglect

This unsealed entrance to a vacant Fishtown building is in violation of city requirements.
This unsealed entrance to a vacant Fishtown building is in violation of city requirements. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 13, 2014

A 2012 city ordinance requires owners of vacant commercial properties to post bonds covering any repairs the city is forced to make. But the Department of Licenses and Inspections isn't enforcing the law, a spokeswoman told The Inquirer, because property owners are having trouble securing bonds. This defeatist mentality excuses and encourages the property speculation that endangers the city's communities.

Property maintenance is a business expense. Legitimate real estate companies put money aside for it all the time. So why are Philadelphia's speculators getting a pass?

Instead of pitying speculators who don't want to pay for bonds, L&I officials should reserve more sympathy for neighborhoods plagued by rotting, dangerous buildings. Neglectful owners should have to produce more than vague promises that their blighted properties will be beautiful someday.

The Nutter administration has taken some praiseworthy steps to deal with this crisis. In the wake of the Market Street building collapse that killed six people in June, Nutter has cooperated with a study of L&I operations. His latest budget proposal includes $2 million to hire 27 more inspectors. And the city is upgrading its computer systems to help it react to problems more effectively.

The city's Blight Court, which focuses on residential owners who fail to keep up their properties, is also a smart idea that can get results, though the pace of cases is often painfully slow.

These are all good efforts, but they aren't enough. The city has to get tougher.

A recent grand jury report on the fatal 2012 fire at the former Thomas W. Buck Hosiery factory found that L&I doesn't take habitual offenders to court because it doesn't want the city to be forced to take control of derelict properties. But the city doesn't have to take over buildings. It can go to court, secure liens, and exercise them when buildings are sold through a land bank being developed.

The Inquirer's Claudia Vargas reported this week on another vacant former hosiery factory that has become a nuisance for its neighbors in rapidly developing Fishtown. Such failures to take city codes seriously depress property values and invite the next fire or collapse.

Defying history and making communities' safety and quality of life L&I's highest priority isn't easy. But it is necessary to make Philadelphia a livable city of thriving neighborhoods.

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