Philadelphia is a city that is beleaguered with privately owned structures that have been either abandoned by its owners or are left to rot until property values are high enough to make a profit. These buildings have become eyesores in communities and facilitators of crime. In neighborhoods such as Kensington, these edifices are magnets for illegal narcotics distribution and act as safe havens for drug addicts and vagrants.
According to the Department of Licenses and Inspections of Philadelphia, the city has approximately 40,000 vacant structures. Seventy-five percent or 25,000 of those homes are privately owned. This means that about 20,000 abandoned homes are owned privately and are not being maintained.
These buildings have become a burden on neighborhoods that are stricken with unemployment. Neighborhoods like Kensington have low property values and houses come cheap. According to Kensington Renewal, houses can be bought for $30,000 to $40,000. This makes it easy for investors to buy up real estate and hope they can make a profit.
The Department of Licenses and Inspections is responsible for the regulation of these properties. Employees of this office are charged with making sure the owners take responsibility for their investments.
Maura Kennedy is the director of strategic initiatives. She has worked for Licenses and Inspections for two and a half years.
“I am responsible for getting privately owned structures back into productive use,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy is a part of the vacant strategy unit. The group is responsible for making sure owners better maintain their buildings and try to work them back into productive use.
“We hold our owners accountable,” Kennedy said.
The vacant strategy unit singles out individuals who have a large amount of neglected properties.
“We target owners. Some people own 10 to hundreds of properties in the city of Philadelphia. We go after them in a systemic way and hold them accountable for the blight they cause,” Kennedy said.
Licenses and Inspections use money to force owners into better maintenance of their homes.
“We try to leverage economic forces on owners so they better maintain their properties,” Kennedy said.
The Windows and Doors Ordinance is one way to stop people from neglecting their homes.
“This ordinance says that if you fail to maintain your structure with operating doors and windows, we can ask the court to fine you up to $300 per day per non operating opening,” Kennedy said.
Licenses and Inspection use a state law that makes it possible to attach those potential judgments to the owner’s personal assets rather than just with the property itself. This prevents the owner from giving up the house to avoid the payment.
“Now when we say we are going to go after your personal home and bank account, people are more willing to take responsibly,” Kennedy said. “The potential fines get pretty high, pretty fast.”
Kennedy said that he believes that when one person takes the initiative to fix an abandoned building it has a ripple effect.
“Once you start seeing structures better maintained it encourages other neighbors to also invest in their properties,” Kennedy said.
According to the Congressional Research Service’s Economic Downturns and Crime, unattended to structures have a major effect on a community. The study states, “as more houses become abandoned in a neighborhood, the neighborhood begins to feel untended to its residents, leading to an increase in the delinquent activities and ultimately the crime that will occur there.”
The study also shows that statistically when there is a 1 percent increase in foreclosures, there is a 2.3 percent increase in violent crimes. Property crimes may also go underreported because they are related to vacant houses and are committed in low-income areas
According to a study done by the Department of Economics at the University of Pittsburg called Foreclosure, Vacancy and Crime, locations of foreclosures and abandoned buildings are correlated with unobserved areas and the factors that determine rates of crime.
Many residents in Kensington feel that the transformation of neglected buildings can bring revitalization to the community. Josh Lutts, a resident of Kensington aid he believes these actions are positive.
“There is so much potential in them,” Lutts said. “I feel that abandoned buildings as they stand can be rehabbed and can be made into cheap housing for people like myself. My problem is that these buildings are being knocked down and new structures are being put that people from the neighborhood can’t afford.”
Lutts said that he believes that these refurbished homes can promote unity and pride.
“These houses promote community and that is probably the most important thing,” Lutts said. “There is a pride of having your own place. You can make any building your home. You can show people your place that you fixed up and made it your own and be proud.”
For a companion story on Kensington and housing, take a look here.
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