Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Troubled by Urban Blight? What Other Cities Can Learn From Philadelphia

May 6, 2014
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Troubled by Urban Blight? What Other Cities Can Learn From Philadelphia
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
An ordinance enforcing vacant building upkeep is spiffing up neighborhoods.

Abandoned buildings and vacant space in U.S. cities is nothing new. In fact, these problems have plagued cities across the U.S. for decades.  In the wake of the housing crash, however, some urban initiatives have gotten creative: Painting boarded up windows and doors to blend in with other buildings in the area. But Philadelphia is taking a hard line on cracking down on property negligent owners.

A window and doors ordinance established in Philadelphia in 2011 prohibits buildings from having the hallmark of vacancy — plywood covering windows and doors. Property owners with boarded-up openings are fined $300 per day, per window or door. In turn, the ordinance has generated $2.2 million more in transfer tax receipts and Philadelphia has increased home values throughout the city by $74 million, the Los Angeles Times reports

City officials use software used by the IRS to track down owners to take them to Blight Court, which was established along with the ordinance. The new policy even allows the city to attach liens to a property owner’s other property, which incentivizes owners to solve the problem quickly.

As a result, property prices have shot up 31 percent in the last four years. That’s in sharp contrast to the meager 1 percent rise in similar areas, according to a study by Ira Goldstein of the Reinvestment Fund, a community development financial institution.

Rebecca Swanson, who directs the city’s vacant building strategy, said the City of Brotherly Love had already spent millions in demolition to tear down abandon properties, to no avail. Instead, officials decided to take preemptive action by fining owners for “blighting influences.” “That was the whole point, to catch them early, cite them for doors and windows, and hopefully that incentivizes the owner to come out of the woodwork and do something,” Swanson said.

Philadelphia real estate lawyer Richard Vanderslice agreed the ordinance is making a difference. Vanderslice represents many of the landlords, and although they’re griping about the fines, many end up spending more money to develop property.

“They say, ‘How do I fight this?’ and I say, ‘Fix it. It’s going to cost you more to fight it, and by the way, why not just replace the door, rent it out and make some money from it?’ And sometimes a light bulb goes off,” he said.

The new code is working. Inspectors have probed 13,000 vacant properties and cited 9,000 of them for being in violation of city code. Property tax collection has increased in the areas investigated and the city is receiving more permit and licensing fees as building owners are starting to pay more attention, Swanson said. Owners are tearing down dilapidated property or selling it to developers rather than paying the fines. Philadelphia, which has lost more than a half million people since its peak of 2 million residents, has seen a slight uptick to 1.5 million in recent years.

As more cities cut back on budgets and look for new ways to revitalize blighted areas, Philly’s example reveals that sometimes all it takes is a little incentive.

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