Philly residents get paid to tear down 8,000 illegal 'bandit signs'

Fed up but entrepreneurial, Philadelphia neighbors got together last month and tore down 8,000 illegally posted signs in exchange for cash.

We’ll see how long they stay down.

The city, which has struggled with a bandit sign problem for decades, paid 24 community groups 50 cents per sign as part of the pilot program. The city paid a total of  $3,346 to the groups.

The signs, typically offering “Cash for Houses” and “We Buy Houses,” are seen as an eyesore and a potential threat to vulnerable residents.

Camera icon MICHAEL FROELICH / Handout
Before the city launched its program, West Philadelphia resident Michael Froehlich offered neighbors $1 for every sign torn down and brought to him. A collection from October is pictured here.

The penalty for posting is $300 per sign for the first offense and up to $2,000 per sign for the second offense but catching the perpetrators can be tricky, since many posters use Google voice numbers and burner phones.

Nic Esposito, director of the city’s Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet, said he wants to try the program again.

“We would love to get a steady funding source for this to do this over and over and over again,” he said.

Esposito spent some time calling numbers, and when someone answered, he said they were often reasonable. “If it’s a legitimate businesses and I say, ‘Listen, do you know this is illegal?’ most people say, ‘I didn’t.’ Now, maybe it’s willful ignorance, but they’re going out and taking them down.”

He said the city is “working on something” to address the harder-to-track down sign-posters. He was cagey about the details. “We can’t reveal how we’re doing it,” he said. “It’s like when cops can’t comment on an ongoing investigation.”

In addition to the hard plastic signs, typically advertising home or car purchases, teams also removed fliers and posters promoting shows, often stapled to telephone poles. Esposito said the city wants to install advertising kiosks in certain neighborhoods so there’s a place for that information.

Neighborhood groups were paid for up to 500 signs, but Fox Chase Town Watch went above and beyond, collecting the most signs: 1,890.

In October, the city will work with Mural Arts Philadelphia to find a way to re-purpose the signs into “something useful.”

Any ideas?