When that abandoned house next door is worth something

THE PROBLEM: Truman Gilbert is part of what's going right in Francisville. He's sinking tens of thousands of dollars into an old shell he bought two years ago on Girard Avenue near 20th Street - putting in new hardwood floors and installing a new kitchen and bathroom.

But behind his rowhouse, on College Avenue, there's a house in much worse shape. Actually, calling the structure a "house" might be a stretch. The back half has collapsed, exposing what remains to the elements. Even more worrisome, one of the two lingering retaining walls is just one brick wide, and has a large hole near its base.

Being so close to the run-down house makes Gilbert worry that he won't be able to sell his property. His investment will take an even greater hit if the building collapses and takes his with it.

Gilbert would like to buy and demolish the property himself, but doesn't think the $20,000 he'd put toward the purchase would go far enough.

He's also talked with the Department of Licenses and Inspections, and though inspectors declared the property unsafe in July, the city hasn't demolished it because it does that only when properties are declared imminently dangerous.

GETTING SOME LEVERAGE. Philadelphia is littered with houses like this, and it's often not clear what can be done about them: The city can't afford to tear them all down - it costs an average of $17,000 to demolish a house.

And it can be difficult to force owners into compliance with city code when they're either dead or gone from the city, or the house has no value to speak of. The city can issue violations, but if there's no incentive to rehab a property, the fines often just accumulate.

But there are a few things about this particular property that might give the city more leverage than it usually has.

First, the house actually has a clear owner. According to city records, Herbert H. Simmons bought the house two years ago for $1. Simmons didn't respond to a letter sent to a house in West Philadelphia that city records give as his address.

Second, the house sits on a piece of prime real estate in the center of one of Philadelphia's emerging neighborhoods. Overlooking historic Girard College, the house is just waiting to be snatched up by a developer and replaced by a luxury town house. Unfortunately, that's not true of most vacant properties in economically depressed neighborhoods.

Simmons has, in fact, put the property up for sale. One online listing puts the asking price at $75,000. It said that the house (perhaps unrealistically) has three bedrooms and 1 1/2 bathrooms, and, in what can only be described as a gross understatement, that it needs some "TLC."

How does this give the city leverage? Other cities have taken advantage of situations like this by enacting laws that force property owners to fix up their properties at the time of sale.

Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and Hastings, Neb., for instance, require properties be inspected for violations before they're sold and then brought up to code by either the buyer or seller.

If such a law were put in place in Philadelphia, this property would have to be fixed, or demolished, when Simmons sells it.

Maura Kennedy, spokeswoman for L&I, is skeptical about injecting the government into private real-estate transactions, as is the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors. But John Kromer, a consultant with the University of Pennsylvania's Fels Institute of Government, said that Allentown has adopted a similar approach.

Kromer, who's made a career in government redevelopment policy and is running for sheriff, said that an approach like this, if done carefully, could help prevent land-banking, in which property owners hold onto dilapidated property in the hopes of getting a big payoff from a future developer.

Though he said that it would take a while to get a similar system set up here, it's "probably the best possible time" because the real-estate market has cooled down, and inspectors wouldn't be overwhelmed by the number of properties going to closing.

Other approaches are more heavy-handed. Allentown, for instance, gives property owners an ultimatum: Resolve your violations, or see properties certified as blighted. If that happens, the city's redevelopment authority can take properties by eminent domain and sell them to developers who promise to fix them up.

Though Philadelphia doesn't pursue either of these strategies, Kennedy said that L&I is looking at targeting properties like this one in the next few months as it rolls out new enforcement initiatives.

But the house is falling apart now. What can Gilbert do in the meantime? Kennedy suggested that he call 3-1-1 again and ask to get the property reinspected. Conditions may have deteriorated since L&I last looked, and it might now qualify for demolition.

Gilbert did just that and should hear back from L&I soon. We'll follow up and tell you what the department said.

Have you dealt with city services lately? How'd it go? Let us know at www.thecityhowl.com, email howl@phillynews.com or call 215-854-5855.