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City expands powers to take over decrepit homes

City now has expanded powers to issue fines, even eventually take away ownership of ugly, vacant houses.

When Department of Licenses & Inspections Commissioner Fran Burns appeared at a City Council budget hearing last week, she said the oft-maligned agency will launch a pilot program starting Monday targeting some of the city’s estimated 25,000 unoccupied, blighted properties in a “committed, real effort to get owners to maintain [them].”

Next week, L&I will send letters to owners of more than 140 properties — including someone in Bucks County who owns 78 citywide — in census tracts along the Delaware River in Northeast Philadelphia. The properties, located on blocks with 80 percent occupancy, were pinpointed because the owner has either obtained a vacant license or been cited for violations that are likely indicators of vacancy.

“We will write violation notices for buildings that are vacant but lack doors and windows; for all premises to be clean, safe and in secure condition and that the roof and drainage systems to be maintained to prevent damage to adjoining properties,” said Burns, whose correspondence, co-signed by City Solicitor Shelley Smith, will state, “We mean business; if you don’t comply, see you in court.”

Under the “windows and doors” ordinance, a property owner can be fined up to $300 a day, L&I spokeswoman Maura Kennedy said. Burns acknowledged that one of L&I’s “weakest areas of enforcement ... has been poor owner information.” So they hired interns to find “good owner information” for the 25,000 vacant structures.

Eventual expansion

The pilot program is the first of four phases that will gradually make its way into areas with a larger volume of blight. L&I will also target city workers “who own poorly maintained vacant land to make sure that they are held accountable as well.”

 
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