During their patrols with the Mayfair Town Watch, John Vearling and Len Roberts heard the same complaints from residents over and over again.
The owners of this property did not shovel their sidewalk when it snowed. This owner failed to maintain the lawn. The renters in this household would not put their trash outside at the proper time on the proper night. The sound of barking dogs and blasting music that came from this apartment never ceased.
Roberts, the Town Watch vice president, said the gripes escalated as time passed. Some neighbors told him that certain properties on Cottman Avenue were known drug houses. Vearling, the Town Watch president, heard from others that residents would move out in the middle of the night.
Eventually, Vearling, Roberts and rest of the Mayfair community found the common denominator among these problem properties – all were owned by absentee landlords who live outside of Philadelphia in New York, New Jersey and even Texas. A quick examination of the 3200 block of Cottman Avenue in Mayfair, for instance, reveals seven properties that are owned by individuals in New York. Two properties on the 4500 block of Bleigh Avenue and two properties on the 4000 block of Aldine Street have owners with permanent addresses in northern New Jersey and New York as well.
“When blocks aren’t 100 percent owner occupied, it can disrupt the harmony of the block,” Mayfair Civic Association President Joe DeFelice said. “I don’t want to begrudge people their investments, but I don’t want to see it at the expense of the community if the properties are not maintained or rented to respectable individuals.”
Vearling, Roberts and other Mayfair administrators agreed that residents began mentioning absentee landlords to them about 10 years ago around the beginning of the 2000s. They disagreed, however, on the reasons why absentee landlords began appearing in their specific neighborhood.
DeFelice said he believes the sheer affordability of housing in Mayfair, and the Lower Northeast in general, drew prospective owners. He estimated that a 1,500-square-foot row home in New York would cost about $450,000 compared to about $100,000 to $120,000 in Mayfair.
Vearling and Roberts said another rumor they have heard is that many northern New Jersey and New York residents bought properties in Mayfair and the Lower Northeast after Sept. 11, 2001, in case of another terrorist attack.
The process, Roberts said, begins when older, longtime residents die and leave their houses to their children. Those children, Roberts added, may not want or need the properties because they already own homes or do not want to live in Philadelphia, so they place the homes up for sale. That is when the absentee landlords enter the equation. They buy the properties and then split up the duplexes or triplexes into multiple apartments.
Sometimes, Mayfair Zoning Commissioner Chris Vogler said, out-of-state, absentee landlords honestly do not realize that their renters are causing problems in the community. That, Vogler said, is because they do not follow up on their renters or keep a close eye on their investments.
Regardless of whether or not the landlords are aware of the situation, Vearling said that once one property falls into disrepair on a block, other properties quickly go up for sale.
“All that needs to happen is that one more person sells because he or she got fed up, and then the absentee landlords own the whole block,” Vearling said.
Unfortunately, residents who live on blocks with absentee landlords do not have much recourse. Roberts said concerned individuals can call the group, which will call the police. Many individuals, however, are reluctant to report problems, Roberts said, because they do not want to bother the police when they might have more serious problems to handle. Until residents speak out, though, the Town Watch and civic associations cannot look into the problem.
“I tell people that as soon as they have a problem, they need to tell us,” Vogler said. “The first thing we’ll do is make sure the property is being rented legally, that there is a rental license, that the owner has the proper permit and that the proper tax paperwork has been filed. We can levy fines against landlords [though there is no guarantee landlords will pay the fines since many list P.O. boxes as their permanent addresses in other states].
“After that, we will check with the Department of Licenses and Inspections and local City Council representatives,” Vogler added.
Roberts said he heard that City Councilwoman Joan Krajewski, D-6th District, was trying to pass a law that would make it illegal for anybody who owned or rented a home in Philadelphia to live outside the city or, at the very least, outside Pennsylvania. Krajewski’s office did not respond to attempts to contact her.
The Mayfair Community Development Corp. is trying a slightly different approach. Not only has the CDC approached zoning officials in an effort to get duplexes and triplexes rezoned as single-family residences, but it has also purchased and rehabilitated properties and tried to put them in the hands of families who want to move into the community and stay there, Executive Director Brian King said.
“We’ve tried to take back blocks,” King said. “We’re selling the properties at market value, but we’re also helping families with the financing. Many of these houses were built either during or post-World War II to help families get in and get established, and that’s what we’re trying to do now.”
Camille Capobianco, 37, grew up in the Tacony section of Philadelphia. She said her neighborhood was once good, clean and friendly. Now, she said, residents are fighting the evils of what has become a nightmare epidemic in most neighborhoods throughout Northeast Philadelphia.
Absentee landlords have stricken most of the communities and have left local residents to fear, to avoid and to fight their new tenants.
“Most [absentee landlords] are from out of state, but there are some local slumlords,” Capobianco, a mother of three daughters, said.
Absentee landlords purchase cheap properties and then rent out the homes for investment. They tend to live far away from their properties as well. Capobianco said that many people have complained that these landlords do not have proper licenses most of the time, do not have property managers and do not care whom they rent their properties to as long as their houses are filled and rent checks arrive every month.
“There are so many senior citizens who are afraid to come out of their houses because the rental property next door has prostitutes and/or blunt parties,” Capobianco said.
The loss of her job and a divorce unexpectedly forced Capobianco to move outside Philadelphia to New Jersey, but her passion for the cause is still there.
“It’s not even my block,” Capobianco said. “I loved my neighborhood. I know what a happy childhood I had there. I don’t want to see it become a ghetto. I wasn’t involved, but I do hold the people involved accountable. So, I got involved with politics. I got involved with the Republican Party and then the civic group.”
Capobianco, determined to keep her neighborhood as she remembers it from her childhood, took the initiative when she saw a “For Rent” sign go up on a property.
“In my cell phone, I have addresses and phone numbers of people with ‘For Rent’ signs in the neighborhood,” Capobianco said. “I would call the landowners ahead of time, telling them what the community expects of them before they rent the places out.”
Sometimes, she said, she would have to play hardball.
“If we don’t get that cooperation, we will go up against you,” she said she has told some new landlords.
Most landlords that Capobianco called before they rented out their properties were understanding, but Capobianco said one particular landlord thought he could “bully his way around the situation.”
“One guy on Knorr Street told me, ‘I own 350 houses. You can’t touch me,’” Capobianco said. “‘Then me and my committee of little elderly ladies will be on your front yard protesting,’ I told him. He said, ‘You still can’t touch me.’
“‘Well, then the little elderly ladies will go downtown and complain that they are afraid to go outside of their houses, and you will lose your license,’” Capobianco added. “He told me, ‘You’re pretty smart.’ I told him to take his capital and use it for good and not evil. He then offered me a job. I said, ‘No thanks. I don’t work for the devil.”’
Unfortunately, these types of situations are spreading throughout the Northeast.
Kathy Wersinger, 55, a resident of Lawncrest and the administrative assistant to City Councilwoman Marian Tasco, D-9th District, said she feels that absentee landlords have gone too far.
“I think it’s awful,” Wersinger said. “It’s a disgrace that these people are in it only for a check. They don’t care who they have in there as long as they get their rental check each month.”
“About 40 percent to 45 percent of the neighbors are renters in Lawncrest, and I call 911 on a frequent basis,” Wersinger added. “Yes, I am affected. My quality of life is affected.”
Landlords are supposed to have business licenses as well as property managers if they do not live nearby. Most of the time, however, when people need to go to landlords for emergencies or to serve complaints, they are faced with P.O. Boxes instead of legitimate addresses.
“New Yorkers can come down and buy property because it is so much cheaper,” Capobianco said. “They were bringing in busloads of investors from New York on bus tours. I believe the Northeast was specifically targeted.”
After seeing the first “For Rent” sign, Capobianco started her own cause.
“My petition said that they need to have a verifiable address, so they could be served for due process on that address,” Capobianco said. “I got about 4,000 signatures. I also got a lot of hate mail from people because I’m Republican. The best thing for me was when I actually helped individual people.”
Wersinger said that Tasco is trying to publish legislation. Tasco announced at a Lawncrest Community Association meeting that she is offering legislation to make sure that property owners have, at the very least, legitimate, verifiable addresses attached to their rental properties.
Capobianco said that too many politicians have promised to help solve this problem, to no avail. She said she only hopes that someone will come through on his or her promise.
Until then, she will continue to keep watch on the Northeast neighborhoods, even if it is from a far.
The Mayfair Town Watch can be contacted at 215-303-1757,