WHEN MIKA Deburow bought her compact, tan-brick Tacony rowhouse 12 years ago, it was in the middle of a quiet, tidy and peaceful block.
Now, the well-kept houses with trim lawns accented by decorations and flowers are mere dots on a cluttered block where trash crinkles underfoot, dogs sometimes run loose and overgrown weeds creep onto porches.
"I've had enough," said the 41-year-old, who raised her children in the home on Marsden Street near Levick. "This was a nice neighborhood."
She frowned at the front porch of a house across the street filled with raucous young men.
"All the time," she sighed.
The problem, according to Deburow, local politicians and others, is the sheer number of homes owned by absentee landlords.
In Northeast Philadelphia, it's become "a crisis in the last couple years," said state Rep. Kevin Boyle. "People are fed up. It's an issue. The middle-class tax base leaves."
Deburow said that she noticed an onslaught of investors buying up many of the houses surrounding hers over the last six years and often renting them to irresponsible or disruptive tenants, then leaving the properties to fall into disrepair.
Following the lead of a homeowner across the street, she put her house up for sale and can't wait to leave.
Nearly 30 of the houses on Deburow's block are rentals, according to Board of Revision of Taxes records, and 10 of those owners conduct their business as out-of-state limited-liability corporations, mainly in New York or North Jersey.
Boyle and other leaders say that the out-of-town investors who have purchased massive amounts of property around Tacony, Mayfair, Wissinoming and elsewhere over the last decade are creating problems for neighbors.
They've brought rowdy tenants, crime and headaches for lawmakers, who say that locating problem owners can be a daunting task.
"An individual would buy 10 to 20 properties and form LLCs, then the address would be a P.O. box," Boyle said. "We've had no way to track down owners."
Boyle called on city officials to be more aggressive in dealing with the problem by enforcing laws dealing with nuisance properties and code violations.
"We need to make sure they know they can't get away with the complete disregard for the community they've shown," he said.
Maura Kennedy, a spokeswoman for L&I, said that she was unsure about specific problems related to negligent-property owners in the Northeast. She cited a database of vacant properties that the department is compiling.
But Boyle said that focusing on vacant properties that have become eyesores isn't enough.
"They need to focus on [all rental properties]," he said. "It can't just be a matter of vacant properties. We need to target these LLCs and corporations that have been negligent, and the property holdings they have in Philadelphia."
State Rep. Mike McGeehan, whose district includes areas of the Northeast plagued by negligent property owners, notes that this is a citywide issue, but it's a fairly new phenomenon in the Northeast.
"These problems we're confronted with are really what most parts of Philadelphia have dealt with for a lot longer," he said.
"People are angry. They're upset, and the census shows that folks, unless we do something drastic, are going to leave Northeast Philadelphia. And that has dire consequences for all of Philadelphia."
In fact, only a few neighborhoods in the Northeast lost population in the 2010 U.S. Census data released earlier this year. The Northeast as a whole gained nearly 19,000 residents.
Councilman Frank DiCicco, who passed the "broken-window bill" about a decade ago to combat disrepair of vacant and nuisance properties, said that there needs to be a mechanism in place for locating problem owners.
"I want to have some way of identifying who the owners of the buildings are so that any complaints from nearby residents could be made directly to the owners," he said. "People who live near these properties that are causing problems for them have to live with it, and the owner can live 100 miles away or further. They should be made aware of the behavior of the tenants."
Linda Lawrence, a constituent-services representative for Northeast Councilwoman Joan Krajewski, said that the absentee landlord problem has existed during all of her 14 years working for Krajewski.
But she said that the numbers of problem properties seemed to swell over the last five years. Now she spends most of her time trying to track down owners of nuisance properties via rental licenses, utility bills or deeds, and receives complaints about properties a few times a week.
"I think when a lot of these people bought their homes, maybe they didn't know how to operate a rental property," she said, adding that the landlords seldom check tenants' backgrounds or credit histories.
She said that owners she has reached have mostly followed her instructions and either evicted bad tenants or cleaned up their properties.
Rachael and John Campbell, who live on the next block over from Deburow with their four children, are hoping to start looking at suburban houses soon.
"The night there was a shooting on the corner was an eye-opener for us," Rachael, 31, said.
She said that neighbors were "fanatical" about their lawns when she bought her home there 12 years ago, keeping them prim and lined with flowers.
"Now, nobody does it," she said. "Everybody's lawns are like 12-foot high and nobody does anything."
Campbell said that his wife feels sentimental about the neighborhood where she spent much of her childhood, though they know that moving out is the best decision for their kids.
"All of a sudden, we started to watch [the neighborhood] turn," he said. "It was beautiful here six years ago."
He added that the crime and blight have become too much to even let the kids play out front without close supervision.
"I'm finding dirty condoms in my yard, and some blocks are just falling apart," he said.
"We need a better environment."
Deburow said that it's sad to see the area change so drastically and watch people leave.
A friend of hers who used to rent the house next door, now a boarded-up shell, was forced to move out more than a year ago because the landlord never came to fix leaks or other problems.