Philly's 'bandit sign' problem growing, likely here to stay

After a developer in Kensington tried to rebrand a portion of the neighborhood with signs labeling it “Stonewall Heights,” residents fumed, calling the move a sloppy attempt to rewrite a neighborhood’s history and identity, not to mention a marketing move to drive up home prices.

The signs were also posted illegally.

While perhaps better designed than the “We Buy Houses” or “Fast Cash” signs that dot high-traffic streets citywide, the Stonewall Heights advertisements posted on private utility poles were just as illegal. Philadelphia has long fought against the so-called bandit signs, which Pat O’Donnell, right-of-way manager for the Streets Department, said won’t be going away anytime soon.

So what’s the official rule on putting up signs in Philly?

You’re not allowed to put up signs in the public right of way at all,  the street or the sidewalk. When it’s accessory to a business or something of that nature, it can depend — but the bandit signs are all illegally attached.

Are things getting any better?

I’ve been with the city for 32 years, and I’ve seen an increase in the actual installation of the bandit signs over the last probably seven years. It looks like they’re concentrating on high-volume roadways, arterial roads within the city, to promote whatever it is they’re trying to sell. You’ll see “homes for sale” or “we buy homes.”  You also have the vehicles — the guys that buy the batteries. We’ll go around, take them down, and the next day they’re back up again.

What’s the penalty?

If we can identify who it is, it’s a $75 code-violation notice. But you can’t identify who these guys are — the numbers all go to burner phones, some of the posters promoting concerts don’t list the venue, so it takes research.

Do you have the manpower to do the research to find out who they are?

Manpower? I have none. My unit is a very small unit within the city, and our responsibilities include bandit signs, sidewalk cafes, construction sites, private development construction, and street-closure permits. Our current staffing is at seven inspectors citywide with two supervisors.

Do you think increasing fines could help deter these rogue sign-posters?

If you can’t find out who they are, what’s the sense of having a higher fine? I’d rather have people just rip them down and dispose of them — properly, of course. It’s a big help for us and their community.

There have been creative ways to try to deter the sign-posters, including robo-calling the numbers listed on the signs to annoy the posters. Is the city still doing that?

No, the calls were all going to burner phones, so the city stopped.

The ads seeking cars for cash or homes for sale have been criticized as pulling down a neighborhood. What’d you make of the outrage over the “Stonewall Heights” sign attempting to rebrand a neighborhood, purportedly in the name of bringing it up?

It’s pretty interesting. There it’s more of a sales pitch, trying to get buyers in to buy in that community or in that vicinity, but to rename or rebrand a community to another name, I don’t see neighbors in Philadelphia being anything but completely opposed to that.