Members of the Philly Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet's 'Bandit Sign Brigade' show off some of the 8,000 signs the group tore down over the month of June. (Courtesy of Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet)

"I Buy Houses." "I Buy Junk Cars." "Buy House – Fast Cash."

 

Everyone in Philadelphia is familiar with the spectacle of telephone and utility poles and other public surfaces covered with reams of paper posters, flyers, and signs, many of them advertising dubious and potentially predatory services to the cash-strapped and desperate.

 

But while these so-called “bandit signs” are actually illegal in Philadelphia, it’s a tough problem to fight. So Philadelphia’s Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet recently teamed up with 24 community organizations to form the city’s first-ever “Bandit Sign Brigade.” Over the month of June, some 8,000 illegal flyers were removed from the streets.

 

“We had groups representing every part of the city tearing these signs down,” said Nic Esposito, who is director of Philly’s Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet in addition to running an urban farm in Kensington and a local publishing house. “They find this a sign of disrespect, that you can come in my neighborhood and put these signs up and think that it’s totally fine to do that.”

 

Esposito said some signs are hung by legitimate businesses or local musicians who just don’t know it is illegal in Philadelphia to hang posters on things like streetlights, utility poles, traffic signs, historical markers, or street trees. But he estimated that about 75 percent of the signs taken down were anonymous.

 

“They can be predatory in nature. We see ‘I Buy Homes’ signs in areas with high foreclosure rates,” Esposito said. “In Germantown, within a 10-block radius, there were 200 of these ‘I Buy Junk cars’ signs. That’s 20 for each block.”

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The city penalizes bandit sign-hangers with a $300 fee per sign for the first offense and up to $2,000 per sign after the second offense. But enforcement can be tricky.

“We’re trying to figure out who these people are,” Esposito said. “A lot of them don’t live in the city, they’re coming in from surrounding counties and putting these signs up.”

Fighting the Bandit Signs

The Bandit Sign Brigade amassed significant data on the location and types of signs being hung around Philly to aid the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections in tracking down and punishing the people responsible for the signs.

The city is also offering a cash benefit, paying 50 cents per illegal sign removed to eligible groups, up to $250 in funds for community cleaning and greening supplies.

The 8,000 removed bandit signs are not going in the trash, but will be used for a Mural Arts creative project at a “Trash Academy” program this October. And further down the road, the city is investigating the construction of “sanctioned advertising kiosks” where law-abiding businesses can hang legal signs.

Esposito said the plan to attack bandit signs was formed after gathering public input about the litter problems that affect city residents most. While signs aren’t quite the same thing, they do eventually become litter and detract from the overall cleanliness of a neighborhood, he said.

“People think, if someone got away with it here, I can get away with it. It’s just this mark of I can do what I want in this neighborhood and nobody’s watching. I think that does contribute to this general air of lawlessness,” Esposito said. “When something isn’t being enforced, people think neighbors don’t care, the city doesn’t care. We want to show them we do care. … We’re working, on their side, to really get to the root causes of this.”

To learn more about the Bandit Signs Brigade, visit cleanphl.org/illegalsigns/.