How the city takes on deadbeats -- and how its approach sometimes fails

20120411_inq_pfire11z-a
Remains of the warehouse in Kensington destroyed by a fire early Monday that claimed the lives of two firefighters from Ladder 10. Neighbors had complained that the old Thomas W. Buck Hosiery building was unsafe. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Even before a fire ravaged Kensington’s Thomas W. Buck Hosiery building and led to the deaths of two firefighters, the building was a symbol of the city’s struggles with delinquent property owners. Yechiel, Michael and Nahman Lichtenstein, who own 31 properties in Philadelphia, owe almost $400,000 in back property taxes, more than $10,000 in unpaid water bills, and have numerous outstanding Licenses and Inspections violations. That’s the Holy Trinity of delinquent property ownership.

What does the city do when property owners are delinquent in each of these areas? And why don’t the problems always get resolved? Help Desk is focused this week on those questions. Hit us with your city service complaints for next week.

Unpaid property taxes

What should happen: If you don’t pay your property taxes, you get a certified letter in January telling you pay up by March 31. If you still don’t pay, the city will send you a letter every other month, and your tax bill will keep growing, thanks to accumulating interest. At some point, the city will take you to court. If you still don’t pay, your house will be put up for sheriff sale.

Why it doesn’t always work: As the Daily News reported in 2010, many tax-delinquent properties don’t get sent to sheriff sale for decades. Two years ago, the city promised to crack down on property-tax delinquents and send 600 properties to sheriff sale per month, instead of the meager 90 properties it was previously sending. But the city hasn’t fully delivered. Last week, the Inquirer reported that since last July, the city has been sending an average of 202 properties to sheriff sale per month. Plus, not every property sent to sheriff sale actually gets sold.

Unpaid water bills

What should happen: Once you rack up an unpaid water bill of $75, the Water Revenue Bureau can shut your water off. The bureau will send you two notices about the impending shut-off (one, if you have a commercial property). Once your unpaid bill reaches $150, the city can take you to Municipal Court.

A judge there will issue you a fine that will be attached to all the properties you own, rather than just place a lien on the problem property.

Why it doesn’t always work: The Water Revenue Bureau says that a property’s water is generally shut off before legal action is taken. But this doesn’t always happen, and the legal process can take a while. At the Buck Hosiery building, the Lichtensteins owed more than $10,000 in water bills from 2010 and 2011. Apparently, someone forgot to shut the water off.

The city also sometimes struggles with locating delinquent owners. Municipal Court cases are automatically dismissed if “service” can’t be made, meaning the property owner isn’t officially notified. The city could almost certainly do a better job of this, though: The three times it tried to take the Lichtensteins to court for unpaid water bills, service was attempted at the vacant Buck Hosiery building and the cases were dismissed.

L&I violations

What should happen: If you’re not maintaining your property — say, your front yard is full of garbage and has attracted rats — L&I will issue you a violation. Generally, you get three chances, 90 days total, to fix the problem, though there are certain cases in which a property owner will get fewer chances if a property is an immediate danger. After that, the city will take you to Municipal Court. This is a fairly new effort — before the Nutter administration, there was no L&I policy of consistently taking property owners to court.

In Municipal Court, a judge will issue you a fine that will be attached to all the properties you own. Repeat offenders or serious cases can also be sent to Common Pleas Court, which can order you to fix the problem, increase your fines, and keep pestering you.

Why it doesn’t always work: Common Pleas Court is an important hammer in this process, but L&I doesn’t routinely escalate cases there. Take the Lichtensteins: Since 2009, L&I took them to Municipal Court eight times for eight different properties. Out of those cases, half were dismissed because the city couldn’t make service. Only one property was eventually taken to Common Pleas. n

Can’t get answers about city services? We can help. Reach us at howl@phillynews.com, 215-854-5855 or on Twitter @phillyhowl. More columns at philly.com/cityhowl Juliana Reyes reports for It’s Our Money, a joint project of the Daily News and WHYY funded by the William Penn Foundation that seeks to explain where your tax dollars go.

Continue Reading