Last week The Department of Licenses & Inspections initiated its pilot program to zero in on many of the city’s estimated 25,000 unoccupied, neglected properties. The task isn’t as easy as sending a letter to the owners; finding the correct owner information is what’s been holding L&I back from taking the major steps needed to improve neighborhoods. Maura Kennedy, the director of strategic initiatives for L&I, explains it’s not the city-owned 10K-plus properties that they are worried about (the vacant ones they receive every month from sheriff sales), but more so the privately owned properties that account for about 70 percent of the issue at hand. “The vast majority of problems are in private hands,” explains Kennedy, who relays how L&I is getting serious about enforcing and overcoming poor owner information.
Four members of a research team and two full-time inspectors are dedicated to this pilot program, which will give the department a good idea of how long this will take for the next phases of the plan. (Phase 1 will start with the 193 census tracts containing 50 or less vacant structures, a combined 3,306 structures; Phase 2 will focus on tracts with 51 to 150 blighted buildings per tract, about 8,564 structures; Phase 3 will focus on tracts with 151 to 250 buildings per tract, about 6,981 structures; Phase 4 will focust on tracts with 251 or or more blighted buildings, about 3,624 structures.) The department must go through multiple databases (city and state, as well as using the powerful law enforcement tool Accurint, which is used by a select group of clients for the government) to find good owners and addresses to serve as part of the court process before it can hold them accountable for legal proceedings. So far, the research team has found the owners and addresses for 1/4 of the properties, which will then be handing over to inspectors who will draw from a finite group of violations that have the most impact. From the data collected, the department will assume that all of the vacant properties are located on blocks that are 80 percent occupied and send out a letter signed by the Commissioner and the City Solicitor*. There will then be two re-inspections followed by court.
L&I is mapping the properties starting in low-frequency areas like Mayfair and Port Richmond, including the 78 properties that are owned by one owner. “We want to help fortify stable neighborhoods to better concentrate resources in communities where they need other L&I resources like demos,” explains Kennedy. She explains that this program is quite different than previous programs as L&I is exercising powers they haven’t used before to get owner information (they are able to go after, thanks to Act 90, the assets of people who own these blighted properties) instead of issuing liens only. “We are cleaning up records and proper housing expansion licences, picking up new vacant homes and engaging with residents to encourage reporting of more vacant homes in their communities,” says Kennedy. The department will also target city workers who own poorly maintained vacant land to make sure that they are held accountable as well.