Help Desk: Origin of the Feces

Piper Brett in her wet and unpleasant North Philly basement.

PIPER BRETT'S neighborhood is a little rough around the edges, and she can deal with that. Brett, an artist who used to rent in Fishtown and Northern Liberties, bought a rowhouse a few years ago in the Hartranft section of North Philly. That way, she could have it all: lots of space for an in-house studio at a good price.

Though some of her neighbors - a shuttered Catholic school and a fenced-up vacant lot - may seem foreboding, they're not. If there's ever a problem with the school across the street, she knows how to reach the owners. She's also been working on getting the vacant lot cleaned.

But one day this past spring, Brett found a big problem in her back yard. It looked as if it was coming from the rental property next door.

Seeping through the flimsy wire fence between the adjacent yards and her yard was "a giant pile of fecal matter," Brett said. Wads of disintegrated toilet paper, too.

The rental property's landlord had been trying to unclog his drain by snaking it, Brett said, and this was the result.

She tried dealing directly with the landlord, and it worked. He cleaned up the mess - the first time.

But then the mess came back. And the fecal matter really hit the fan when water started pooling in Brett's basement earlier this month. Brett figured that it was because of the same problem. She called the Water Department, and an inspector came out and said that he'd issue a violation to the property owner next door. The owner would have 10 days to fix the problem, Brett says the inspector told her.

Ten days later, Brett still had leakage in her basement. She called the Water Department again, and someone told her that the owner had two more chances to fix the problem. That meant 20 more days. (This was incorrect. An owner has only one more chance to fix a problem - 10 additional days - before his water can be turned off.) A subsequent call was brushed off by a customer-service rep.

Brett was bewildered. When she moved into her neighborhood, she knew that it was "kind of shady." Violence, drug dealing, poverty? O.K., Brett thought to herself, I'll deal. 

"But human waste?" she said. "I can't handle this."

Help Desk tried to reach the landlord, but he did not return our calls.

COMMUNICATION ISSUES: We called the Water Department last week to ask why Brett had to wait so long to get some relief. But, it turned out, we had the wrong question.

Spokesman John DiGiulio told us that, actually, the landlord next door had fixed the problem he was ticketed for. Which meant that the water in Brett's basement was coming from something else.

That same day, an inspector returned to Brett's house to try to figure out the true source of the leakage in her basement. He couldn't. He said that someone else would return to do more tests.

Brett's still waiting to hear what the inspectors have found. Actually, she's waiting to hear from us.

"They seem to tell you, then you tell me," she said.

It shouldn't be like that. Brett had a difficult time getting good information from the Water Department, and only finally did so because we called the spokesman. Customer-service representatives should take citizen calls as seriously as the department takes the press.

Worst-case scenario here: Someone's sewer line is broken. That could cost anywhere from $2,500 to $7,500 to fix, depending on the length and depth of the pipe, said longtime Philly-based plumber Joseph Giannone.

The Water Department offers an interest-free loan to help homeowners pay for these repairs, DiGiulio said, since they are often required unexpectedly. But there are a number of restrictions on the loan, including one that would rule Brett's neighbor out: The property must not be occupied by tenants.

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