Courtesy of the Northeast Times/Maria Pouchnikova
THE AFTERMATH: Two firefighters were killed in a 2012 blaze that destroyed the Thomas Buck Hosiery factory in Kensington. But the city has struggled to take the proper steps to prevent another tragedy.
District Attorney Seth Williams announced this week that he would not pursue criminal charges against Nahman and Michael Lichtenstein, owners of the crumbling Thomas Buck Hosiery factory in Kensington that caught fire and led to an inferno that claimed the lives of firefighters Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney. Williams was quick to point fingers at different city departments, particularly the Department of Licenses & Inspections, for “a failure of government” that led to the fire and likely made prosecution of the Brooklyn-based, father and son real-estate developers more difficult.
An accompanying grand jury report, released Monday, called for a “complete review” of L&I, and outraged elected officials have promised to take action in the legislature. If all this doesn’t sound familiar, it should. City Council enacted several laws immediately after the 2012 fire that sought to beef up the way the L&I dealt with dangerous vacant properties. But sources say that those regulations are routinely ignored by a department that doesn’t have the resources or capacity to police Philadelphia’s nearly 40,000 vacant properties, making the effectiveness of a second round of reactionary legislation all the more dubious.
First, some history. With the city still reeling from the deadly fire, Council designed the 2012 bill with three goals: to make it easier to take owners of hazardous vacant buildings to court, expand a mandate to seal such vacant buildings and to boost a requirement for owners to procure special bonds that insure the city against emergency-demolition costs. To this end, the definition of an “imminently dangerous structure” — a legal designation that helps the city fast-track properties to the court system — was changed to encompass nearly any large, unsealed, vacant building. An existing bond provision was expanded to include the owners of new kinds of vacant buildings, nearly all of which property owners or L&I would now be responsible for sealing with special steel plates.
These were all direct and sensible reactions to the deadly fire at the Buck Hosiery factory on York Street. They stemmed, in part, from the fact that despite three years of inspections and several code violations, the Lichtensteins were never taken to court over the dangerous condition of their building. After the fire, started by a trespasser who entered the unsealed factory, the city was stuck with $100,000 in costs incurred from tearing down the charred hull, a bill that remains unpaid by the Lichtenstein family. All of these reforms passed quickly and were signed by the mayor a little more than two months after the April fire.
But L&I has since balked at actually enforcing the provisions. Officials feared that if they started using their new powers to declare hundreds or thousands of vacant properties “imminently dangerous,” L&I would wind up being held accountable when landlords failed to react.
“The problem is, it becomes a resource issue. If we declare something imminently dangerous … the court expects you to take action,” said L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams in testimony recorded in the grand jury’s report. “If the property owner doesn’t take action, then the City has the burden of that responsibility.”
This is about as close as L&I has come to admitting that its current triage-like system fails to encompass the true scope of the public-safety crisis caused by Philadelphia’s rampant blight and abandonment. The likelihood of a property owner failing to take action, as the commissioner frets, is quite high because of inconsistent enforcement. The department must focus its 200 inspectors and other limited resources — just seven city attorneys handle between 5,000 to 8,000 code-enforcement cases in court each year — on what it deems to be the city’s most dangerous buildings, while others that are still potentially hazardous get put on the back burner.
The downside of this system is painfully evident in situations like the Buck Hosiery fire — though long pegged by neighbors as a hangout for squatters and a fire risk, it was not structurally deficient enough to be considered “imminently dangerous.” Few people would dispute the danger posed by such a building, but it’s unclear what, if anything, L&I would do differently to address a similar scenario today.
A spokesperson for L&I directed all questions related to the grand jury report to the Nutter administration.
Other regulations introduced in 2012 have proven similarly difficult to execute. L&I predictably had trouble getting deadbeat landlords to seal vacant properties and started the process itself. As of last summer, it had sealed 27 such structures, but was not allocated additional funding to expand this effort. As for the bonds, Maura Kennedy, the department’s executive director of development services, told Newsworks last July that the model imposed by council was impractical.
Indeed, a representative from JW Surety, a Pipersville company that is the largest provider of surety bonds in the U.S., confirmed that sentiment. Although “two or three” Philadelphia landlords had reached out to the company, the “higher-risk” nature of these kinds of guarantees had made such an agreement unattractive.
“We represent 19 different surety companies and were unable to place that bond type,” said Rick Bredow, a vice president at JW Surety.
These should all be clear signs that L&I needs more resources and that some current regulations need to be revised. But legislation introduced on Jan. 30 by Councilman Dennis O’Brien, presumably in anticipation of the grand jury’s report, mostly focuses on creating a “task force” to inspect and catalogue vacant properties and improving communication between L&I and the fire department — and extra funding isn’t even on the table.
It’s a good starting point — even if L&I long ago began the process of cataloguing vacant buildings — but doesn’t go nearly far enough. While the department has enacted positive reforms and made great strides in terms of transparency under the Nutter administration, with its current budget, the department and its legal representatives can only do so much in the face of Philadelphia’s overwhelming abandonment. These positive steps are doomed to be overshadowed by failure as more landlords slip through the cracks.
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