You know, the Thomas Buck Hosiery Complex escaped my mind a few months ago. Yesterday at 6 in the morning, a roar of emails from friends whooshed into my inbox. I pulled up philly.com and whammo, the complex that I had helped investigate around Halloween on last year filled my computer screen. It was a huge sordid flambé of an abandoplex gone aflame.
No sooner than an hour after word got out that two of Philadelphia’s finest perished in the blaze, the City officials in absence of the mayor began their Denial-A-Thon.
“We did everything we could within the confines of the law.”
“We sent notices of violation to the property owner.”
“Insert bullshit statement here.”
You see, there is a massive, mostly known but as yet not oft-written industry in Philadelphia called “property squatting.” It works like this: You buy a parcel cheaply, hopefully close to where gentrification may one day come, and you sit on it. You don’t pay taxes, you don’t take care of L&I violations, you don’t have to bother with any of that shit. Property taxes? Unless you live in Chestnut Hill, the City will do nothing to collect on it.
The fines can continue to accrue and liens can be slapped on, but as a property squatter, you don’t really suffer any harm as long as you put the deed under a shell LLC. These are sunk costs.
Then you wait. And you wait. And sure enough, before you can say “vegan restaurant” and “doggie daycare,” another investor with an idea of a building in his head will come along, and offer you 1,000% more than what you originally paid for that lot. So when it comes time to go to settlement, part of the sale is used to clear off all the old liens and fines. When Michael and Yechiel Lichtenstein gave up on their idea for 80-some-odd apartments, they consciously decided to play the Property Squatting Game.
Is this anything new? Center City had a major property squatter, Sam Rappaport. One of his buildings killed a Philadelphia Municipal Court judge when a garage wall gave way.
You see, us neighbors in Fishtown and Kensington were a bit naive. We figured if we carpet-bombed 311, L&I may seal the factory to keep the junkies out, or they would exert enough pressure to get the owners to do it. When some of our tickets were getting closed by L&I as “UNFOUNDED,” I placed a personal request with a City Council staffer to tip the factory into Sheriff’s Sale. After a couple days and a few emails, the Law Department started that paperwork.
What’s the moral of this story? All the “court action” you hear L&I talking about? It’s bunk. Even if you don’t show up for court and a property squatter gets a judgement, nothing happens after that. Not a thing. If you’re unlucky to live next to an abandominium or an abandoplex, I don’t know what to say.
Some say the fire was started by junkies, other suggest it may have been an insurance fire. It really doesn’t matter how it started, the only thing that matters is: the City had at least 5 months to do something about it. And it didn’t. And now two of our Bravest are dead.
And it won’t matter how long the City runs the Denial-A-Thon, it won’t bring them back.
– Christopher Sawyer
Christopher Sawyer is a frothing at the mouth neighborhood activist in East Kensington.
UPDATE: This post was edited to remove the mention of “Jewish Lightning,” a slang term for an insurance fire. Though we often say things that are a bit off-color, it is never our intent to personally offend anyone.