Woman sinks her life savings into blighted house; city sinks her dreams

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Lucy Aponte of West Tioga near North 8th St. stands in front of a house she bought nearly 11 years ago. The property was allegedly misrepresented in its parcel listing. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)

ALL LUCY APONTE wanted when she used her life savings to buy a broken-down house on North 8th Street in 2002 was to expand her neighborhood day-care center.

When she made the winning $20,000 bid at a sheriff's sale for an office building with a parking lot, she thought she was one step closer to fulfilling her dream.

"It was one of the happiest days of my life that has turned into one of the biggest nightmares of my life," Aponte said outside the property.

Turns out the city screwed up and listed only one-third of the property. The previous owners had, without city approval, converted three different parcels into one large property.

Instead of buying an entire house and driveway as she believed, Aponte ended up with only half a house - the half without the front door, driveway or bathroom. Because, you know, not having a potty is super conducive to a thriving day-care.

Aponte, an unassuming grandmother who has cared for generations of children in her North Philadelphia neighborhood, immediately reached out to city agencies to correct the mistake - their mistake.

Sometimes city agencies would respond. Usually, they wouldn't. In 2005, Aponte and a lawyer from Community Legal Services' Child Care Law Project pushed for the city to foreclose and take ownership of the rest of the property, so it could theoretically be transferred to her through a gift-property program.

But that never happened. Another lawyer suggested she just move in, city be damned. The guy charged for that stellar advice. Aponte smartly didn't follow it.

Or maybe it wasn't so smart, because more than a decade later, the eyesore still sits deteriorating and unsold in city inventory, and Aponte waits for the city to set a fair price.

She continues to run her childcare business from her cramped home in hopes that one day the city might remember it wants to support businesses in Philly, not squash them with its incompetency and bureaucracy.

First Aponte was told the fair market value was around $60,000. Then, after Councilwoman Maria Quinones- Sanchez stepped in, the Vacant Property Review Committee in 2009 commissioned a backdated appraisal and adjusted the price to $26,000.

After a new "Front Door" process went into effect in 2012 to more fairly price city-owned vacant properties, a new price was set at closer to $11,000.

Sanchez asked that Aponte be given the property for a nominal consideration with restrictions, considering how much money she'd have to sink into it to make it habitable, let alone a working day care.

They had high hopes when the request was again reviewed last month. But then the city came back with this doozy: The price was back up to $26,000, with a balloon mortgage - meaning that in five years, she'd have to pay the city the full amount or lose the property.

That's right, after 11 years, Aponte was right back where she started.

"This is the reason we need a land bank and a transparent and accessible policy and process," Sanchez said. "The city messed up and even when we try to fix it, it turns into a bigger mess."

Paul Chrystie, director of communications for the city's Office of Housing and Community Development, wouldn't discuss Aponte's case in detail.

"Our goal is to find a way that is fair and equitable to everyone involved," he said. "We're always open to considering new information that would affect the price of a property."

Well, this isn't new information. But it should absolutely affect the price: In more than a decade, no one but Aponte has lined up to take on this disaster of a house that sits right next to a disaster of an abandoned factory - so how is $26,000 fair-market value?

Current city policies allow for a discount in this situation, Sanchez said. "This business - a small . . . business providing affordable child care - is exactly the type that the city, state and federal governments support and subsidize in various ways."

Already Aponte and her husband have shown that putting vacant city property into the hands of responsible owners as soon as possible doesn't just improve the neighborhood, but the city. They've cleaned up around the property and put up a fence around the whole structure - including the half the city owns - to keep vandals out.

"If anyone making this decision would go to the site, they would quickly see that we should be helping this woman, because whatever illusions they have about this property certainly doesn't match the reality," Quinones-Sanchez said.

I suggested a field trip with housing officials. I even offered to drive. But my offer was shot down.

Too bad, because if you want to fix bad city decisions, I have one suggestion: Make the paper pushers step away from their desks.

 


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