Help Desk: Abandonment Issues

John Branson in front of where the empty house next door used to be. (David Maialetti)

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It's not every day that we publish a story about a tree inside a house, so you might recall our Aug. 11 Help Desk about John and Marilyn Branson, the North Philadelphia couple who'd tried, futilely, to get the city to remove the one growing in the otherwise vacant house next door.

The tree was rooted in the rear section of the building, and was breaking through the roof and causing a wall to crumble. The Bransons called 3-1-1 and reported the problem to the Department of Licenses and Inspections.

L&I inspected the property in July but decided that the house did not pose an "imminent danger," according to Bridget Collins, then-deputy commissioner for operations. That meant the city would only issue tickets to the owner, not secure the wall.

At the time, Collins said the Bransons' best hope was that "the owners come through and come into compliance."

But this presented a problem. The house has been owned by a corporation called Brejha and Aasia Investne in L&I's database since Jan. 30, 2009. It was sold to the company as part of a scam involving 15 people and more than 80 stolen properties. Alison Spicer, a woman with connections to Brejha and Aasia Investne, was trying to get the company's name off the deed - she said she didn't really own the house.

Things didn't look good for the Bransons, but we followed up with them recently to see if anything had changed. To our surprise, the situation with the property next door had become even more bizarre, and even more indicative of the challenges associated with vacant properties in Philadelphia.

No more tree! (And no more house.) The Bransons said the nuisance tree had been cut down at the end of August. . . by Spicer.

"I didn't want to have any liability, so I removed the tree," Spicer said when we called her. A lawyer advised her to take care of the tree herself. She said it cost her $3,800.

Two months later, L&I tore down the house anyway.

After deciding over the summer that having the tree growing inside the house didn't pose an imminent danger, L&I placed the property on the demolition list on Oct. 21.

According to Michael Maenner, the new deputy commissioner for operations, L&I did a reinspection of the property in mid-October. This time problems with the load-bearing wall were cited as an imminent danger.

A property is an imminent danger if it is likely to fall within 90 days, Maenner said, and the tree had caused further deterioration between July and October. The inspector believed the house likely would not survive another winter.

L&I posted a notice on the front door, and when we caught up with John Branson on Oct. 25, the house was already in the process of being knocked down. Demolition is still under way.

"They said, 'We'll take it down, if it's all right with you,' " said Branson, laughing.

But who pays? The demolition will cost $28,988, plus a 21 percent administrative fee. The bill will go to Brejha and Aasia Investne, the owner of record.

Spicer hasn't yet taken the company's name off the deed. If she wants the company out of the bill, the D.A. has advised her to retain an attorney and begin the process of filing a "motion to quiet title."

If she doesn't pay, the city can place liens on the property, and eventually foreclose - though this same property had liens for back taxes placed on it every year from 1999 to 2009 without facing foreclosure.

Next door, the Bransons are happy to see the house gone. "I think it's a good time to demolish that house. It took a long time," John Branson said.

The bad news is that responsibility for the property remains with Brejha and Aasia Investne.

If the company maintains its current level of interest, this means the Bransons will receive only a modest upgrade: They'll go from having a collapsing house next door to an abandoned lot.

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