A 38,000 square-foot vacant warehouse in Kensington came crashing down Wednesday afternoon, causing the evacuation of three homes and bringing to light yet another story of a delinquent landlord wreaking havoc on Philadelphia neighborhoods. But this wasn't the first time the city heard about owner Refurbish It, Inc. or its property at 1835 - 61 E. Madison Street.
According to municipal records, the corporation hasn't paid taxes on the building since it purchased it in 2003, resulting in nine liens taken out on the warehouse, one for each of the past consecutive nine years, and a whopping $33,252.70 owed in taxes, interest, fees and penalties.
The city sued Refurbish It over the property in November of 2010 and a judge ordered the building to sheriff's sale due to tax delinquencies on November 1 and October 11, 2011, court records show. On February 22, 2012, a judge set a date for the sale to be held – March 21, 2012, over four months before it eventually crumbled to the ground.
What happened next is unclear. The property apparently did go to sheriff's sale on the 21 and was bought for $54,000, but a new deed was never filed, suggesting that the buyer dropped out. The Sheriff's Office did not return calls for comment Thursday.
L&I spokeswoman Maura Kennedy said that, while she can't comment on the tax liens or sheriff's sale issue, the owners have been cited for not having a license to own a vacant property and maintenance issues including rubbish and debris around the building's exterior. Inspectors visited the property on July 25, just two weeks before its collapse, and declared it "structurally unsafe."
"There's three categories, the lowest being merely a vacant building," Kennedy said. "If you walk out of your house tomorrow and lock the door, in six months, that's a vacant building. 'Unsafe' means we don't think it's going to collapse within 90 days, but it has structural concerns."
A building must be declared "imminently dangerous" for immediate action to occur. But Kennedy said that after the visit in late July, the city did decide to act by opening yet another court case, a process that was still ongoing when the building came down. "When we assessed it as unsafe, we took the steps to take it to equity court, which is the most serious type of court action we can take against a structure," Kennedy said. "You can go to a judge and basically say, 'Hey, judge, order the owner to make corrections for the violations we issued or we fix the violations and have the owner reimburse the city.'"
A fire department official on the scene of the collapse Thursday said that cleanup was suspended until a gas leak that sprung up on the site was repaired. He also said the department has received "conflicting reports" as to whether there was anyone inside the building when it fell and workers will be sorting through the rubble looking for bodies.
The legal battle over the East Madison Street warehouse isn't Refurbish It, Inc.'s first time at the sheriff's sale rodeo, either.
The city sued Refurbish It for tax delinquency in 2008 regarding a property at 2081 E. Ann Street, which was sent to sheriff's sale in May of 2009 and it was purchased for $13,500. An additional $16,298.18 in damages were assessed against the company, according to court records.
Wachovia Bank sued also Refurbish It for financial delinquency over a property at 1914 E. Somerset Street in 2009. The company stopped paying taxes on that building in 1997, resulting in 15 liens and $18,335 owed in taxes, interest and penalties. A judge ordered the building to sheriff's sale in March of 2009 and June of 2010, but the case is still listed as active in the municipal database and Refurbish It still owns the property, according to city tax records. A recent visit to the property revealed that it is currently a vacant lot.
George Capewell, the man listed as the owner of Refurbish It, Inc. on state business records, also owns several delinquent properties under his own name, many of them mere blocks from the site of the collapse. In addition to Refurbish It's debts, Capewell owes at least $260,000 in taxes for at least 13 properties on which 201 liens have been assessed, according to city tax records, and had a 14th property go to sheriff's sale in 2009.