Squatters terrorizing a North Philly block

Rulee and Shirley Williamson in their North Philly rowhouse. (Helen Ubinas/Staff)

ALL RETIREES Rulee and Shirley Williamson want is to enjoy a cup of coffee on their porch without gagging on the stench of urine and feces dumped by the squatters next door.

Now that it's cold outside, all their daughter, Shirley Wilson, wants is to stop worrying that one day the squatters will burn down her parents' home by illegally heating the property, which has no running water, electricity or front door.

Either way, it's a bad situation for this North Philadelphia block of neat rowhouses where most homeowners have lived for more than 50 years.

With contractors in the family, the Williamsons could easily board up the problem property at 3236 N. 27th St. But the family wants to do things the right way. And that, apparently, is their first mistake.

"I've told anyone I could tell, 'We'll even board it up,' " Wilson says. "But my mom and dad say, 'No, we have to make sure everything is done right. You want to make sure you do things legally.' I agree, but if [the squatters] are in there illegally, then [the squatters] aren't doing right."

"You got to do things right," Rulee Williamson, 81, says from his seat at the dining-room table.

"You have to be careful," Shirley, 74, chimes in from the living room, where she's watching her soaps.

"See?" says Wilson, an eyebrow arched in exasperation.

Since the homeowner of the problem house died more than 10 years ago, the Williamsons say they and other neighbors have endured the tax-delinquent eyesore that's gone from troubling to dangerously disgusting.

The previous owner's son lived in the house for a while, they say. But shortly after, one squatter moved in and then another, bringing drugs, prostitution and heaps of garbage and human waste they toss in the back yard, neighbors' trash cans and even down the city drain.

Wilson said that over the years, her family has repeatedly complained to city agencies about the home. They recently got a Fox 29 reporter to do a segment on their situation. But nothing's changed.

"All we want is to have the house boarded up," Wilson repeats.

Sounded simple enough to me. But after talking to various city departments, I think I've figured out why it's, of course, not: They're stuck in that soul-sucking vortex between city departments that are sympathetic, and, sometimes, even responsive, but that are at the mercy of broken procedures that don't do enough to help law-abiding citizens.

Neither the police nor Licenses & Inspections can boot a squatter that easily - even if they're dragging a whole neighborhood down. L&I has opened several cases against the property for lack of utilities, feces in the yard and property-maintenance issues that make the property unfit for habitation. They've sent notifications of violations to the previous owner's daughter, who they say is responsible for the home. They've started to prepare the case for court in hopes of ordering the squatters out so that the property can be sealed.

"I know that this is not what they want to hear, but we are required to follow the law," L&I spokeswoman Rebecca Swanson says. "The hope is that we receive the court order and are able to clean and seal the building, both for the safety of the neighbors and the occupant."

I get it. There's a process, laws. But in the meantime, a whole block of mostly elderly homeowners are held hostage, not just unable to enjoy a little fresh air, but afraid of retaliation if they complain too much.

And that's just unacceptable. What if Rulee and Shirley were your parents? What if the little bit of peace they worked their whole lives for - Rulee in construction, Shirley at the University of Pennsylvania - were being stomped on by people with no regard for those around them? (And yes, I'm also talking to the surviving family members of the problem property owner, who seem to be AWOL.) Wilson says she's asked that of everyone she's complained to. Usually they're sympathetic and tell her they're doing the best they can.

No. Not good enough. We can do better. We can expedite a solution here. We can get creative. We can do right by this hardworking couple who aren't asking for much.

"There's always going to be an issue somewhere, but this seems like an easy one to fix," Wilson says.

Right. So, who can help? Step right up and be a hero. When the weather's nicer, I bet there'll be a nice cup of coffee in it for you on the Williamsons' porch.


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