Councilman Bobby Henon took to the streets of his 6th District neighborhood as he campaigned for his seat last year."The most consistent complaints I heard were bad neighbors and landlords and that thepeople of the city of Philadelphia don't feel connected with their elected officials anymore," he said.
The feedback led him to roll out his "Bad Neighbor Initiative," which includes a "My Big Idea!" button on his website through which constituents suggest ideas and vote on others', sending the most popular to the top of the list.
He unveiled last week an interactive "Bad Neighbor" map illustrating tax delinquent and other problem properties in his district using data from various city departments. He found direct correlations between places with multiple property maintenance violations and the property values on the surrounding block – which were lowered an average of 20 percent.
There were also an excess number of 911 calls to the problem properties, which burden the city's emergency system."Increased crime and blight and lowered morale destroys neighborhoods," he said. "It's contagious. That's what this initiative is about – it has to stop now."
He said that, aside from destroying neighborhoods, nuisance properties are costly to the city. "Early data indicates there's in excess of $11 million in tax delinquencies, which could mean close to 400 more full-time police officers, more teachers in schools ... it could be the difference between closing a library or keeping it open," he said. "$11 million in a cash-strapped city could go a long way – and that's just in my district alone."
Henon said that, despite the press his efforts have received, he is still in the information-gathering phase.
"We've identified through one source or another in excess of 3,500 individual [problem] properties – that's just a start," he said. "The are around 65 that are the worst of the worst, with multiple property and rental violations and tax delinquencies."
Today, he announced a new iPhone app through which all city residents can take and send pictures of blight, code violations and other quality of life issues directly to his office, which refers it to the appropriate district or city department.
"I came to the conclusion last year that people have busy lives," he said. "They see a pothole or trash or a broken window or dumping and they recognize it for 30 seconds, but they're taking their mother to the store or their kids here or there so they can get home before dark."
Henon hopes the app will allow people to make use of that 30 seconds of recognition before they are distracted by life's headaches. "You see it, you snap it and you send it to us," he said. "We, as people, are busy and may forget to call things in. We may overlook something that helps."
He said that a staffer will monitor complaints to flag or remove inappropriate submissions, like neighbors with personal vendettas. "We don't want to get into the Hatfields and the McCoys, here," he said.
The app developed by Micah Mahjoubian, which is currently in beta mode, also allows users to track their complaint as it moves toward resolution and share it through Facebook and Twitter. It will officially launch next week, and Henon's office is looking at making it accessible to Android platforms and through text messages, as well.
Henon said the "Bad Neighbor" campaign is not intended to be punitive in nature – at least for now. "This is an amnesty and educational period," he said. "We're not just going to come out and punish people. We want landlords to be legal and educate people on what it means and what is expected of them as landlords and tenants."
"To date, I haven't outed anybody – I have identified people, but I haven't published their names," he said. "I may, if necessary – because I have the authority to subpoena the worst of the worst – and ask them why they have willfully neglected their properties, neighbors and neighborhood."
Henon plans to roll out another phase rewarding good landlords within the next three weeks. "We certainly want to encourage good, responsible landlords to participate in some programs and take advantage of some incentives and ideas," he said. Those include grant and other opportunities. "We also want opportunities for some landlords who fell on hard times to get back into good status," he said.
Outside of technological advances, Henon plans to establish a District office. "People who are intimidated or may not be able to afford to come into town can stop by," he said. "Instead of five people a week walking in off the street, we might get 75 people."
"It's all about being interactive, transparent and accessible," he said. "This initiative – the app, map, district office, interactive website and technology – are all different ways and forms to make sure residents can be connected to city government."