L&I asks Council for funding to raze vacant buildings

Posted: April 10, 2014

PHILADELPHIA For 21/2 hours, officials from the Department of Licenses and Inspections made the case to City Council for $2 million in added funding to hire more inspectors and tear down unsafe buildings.

Yet there was no mention in Tuesday's marathon hearing of the money L&I is owed by bad landlords.

That figure, records show, is $5.4 million. It's what the city is owed, along with penalties and interest, for "cleaning and sealing" vacant buildings when the owners didn't do it themselves.

L&I is also hoping to demolish much of the inventory on its "imminently dangerous" properties list - on which there are about 600 buildings, including at least three dozen owned by public agencies - in the coming year.

But to do that, L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams told Council on Tuesday, the department needs more money. The $2 million he is seeking would bring the department's total budget to $27.6 million.

If the request is approved, L&I estimates it will demolish 650 buildings and seal 1,400 in the fiscal year that starts July 1, and hire an additional 34 employees, including 26 building inspectors.

Since last July 1, the city has demolished 302 buildings and is on pace to clean and seal 1,400, the majority of which are privately owned, by the end of the fiscal year in June.

A footnote in L&I's budget request explained: "The Clean & Seal Unit cleans and seals vacant residential properties and lots to prevent the illegal use of these properties and prevent injury to the public."

The average cost to clean and seal a vacant two-story single-family home is about $2,500, L&I officials said Tuesday. The average cost to demolish such a property? $15,000.

When the city cleans and seals a building, it bills the owner for the cost. But many owners are absentee or hard to find, and harder to drag into court.

Councilman David Oh asked at the hearing if the city is recouping from owners any of the money spent demolishing or sealing properties.

Williams said yes - but he couldn't say how much.

"Once the work is done, we submit a bill, and once a bill is not paid, it turns into a lien," he testified. "At that point, it becomes another department's responsibility."

L&I previously referred a reporter to the Revenue and Law Departments for such information. A Right-To-Know Law request to both departments has been pending since March 7.

However, the City Controller's Office confirmed that records for fiscal year 2013 reflect a $5.4 million debt, including interest and fees, for "Clean and Seal" work. That number includes both private and publicly owned buildings.

The exact total that building owners owe for demolitions done at city expense was not immediately available. But it was well into the millions of dollars.

The owner is supposed to reimburse the city for the work done, since it is ultimately the owner's responsibility to keep up the property. If the bill is not paid, it becomes a lien - and then it's out of L&I's hands.

When asked by a reporter if L&I would benefit from knowing how much it is owed, and getting more of that money plowed back into its budget, Williams said: "Absolutely, we need to close that loophole."


cvargas@phillynews.com

215-815-1953

@InqCVargas

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