City services put some muscle into volunteer efforts

In South Kensington, a neighborhood that stretches from Front to Sixth streets and Girard Avenue to Berks Street, vacant lots are a significant concern.

That’s not unique in a city where more than 40,000 lots — a third of which are city owned — sit vacant and untended.

But in South Kensington, the more than 400 vacant lots aren’t simply trash-strewn plots of land. They often can be dangerous pockets hidden on darkened streets, where criminal activities can occur.

In fact, according to Natania Schaumburg, program coordinator for the Kensington South Neighborhood Advisory Council, 25 percent of all property in South Kensington consists of vacant — often abandoned — lots.

“It’s frustrating,” she said during an interview held Thursday, June 23. “It’s demonstrative of neighbors that don’t care, and that’s just not true.”

These untended spaces, she said, can be where prostitutes gather, where drug addicts flock to escape the watchful eye of the police or, worse, they can be places where atrocities are committed and victims are left in the dark of night until they can be discovered in the morning sun.

“It attracts crime,” she said. “It’s an invitation for criminal activity.”

The body of Sabina Rose O’Donnell, a popular waitress from Northern Liberties, was found in a vacant South Kensington lot after she was sexually assaulted and strangled last year, Schaumburg noted.

With so many problem properties in the KSNAC’s boundaries, Schaumburg said, volunteers are often overburdened.

“We have some very dedicated volunteers,” she said, “but, there’s only so much we can do. There’s only so much anyone can be expected to do.”

That’s why the community group is now trying something different.

KSNAC has now teamed with the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services. Schaumburg said this allows the group to keep from continually struggling to keep lots clean without support from absentee owners.

Instead, KSNAC can bring in city inspectors to fine owners for the violations on their property.

In the past, the groups worked separately and Schaumburg said that by combining their efforts, the groups make more of an impact throughout the community.

The Office of Neighborhood Services has cited property owners for violations, but, this would be done through complaints made to 3–1–1.

According to Thomas Conway, deputy managing director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, due to the large amount of requests this summer, the office teamed with local community groups — in South Kensington, it’s with the KSNAC — in a more proactive way to support local cleanup efforts and target problem lots as well as find their owners.

Contacted last week, Conway said the new effort works like this: His office and the community group set up boundaries for a cleanup — it’s up to the KSNAC to determine areas that need to be addressed — then inspectors from the city office investigate lots in the specified area to find violations.

Through a community service program, which allows non-violent offenders to do community service in the city, the city office sends out teams to clean and weed lots.

“Then, the community organization comes in to rake and bag the grass clippings and debris,” he said in an email.

City trucks pick up trash once community volunteers have finished the work.

It cuts down the work needed from community volunteers, and through the fines, the program could see some money brought into the city from these long vacant properties — which are often a drain on community resources and, if the property owner is entirely absent, contribute no property tax income for Philadelphia.

Conway said the property owners are billed for the cleanup effort.

The fee is “determined by the number of employees, hours they worked, (the number) of vehicles and (the number) of bags used for the cleanup,” he said.

On average, the cost to clean a lot that’s about 16 feet by 60 feet is between $200 and $300 dollars.

“But it could be much higher if it is full of debris and we have to use front end loaders and dump trucks,” Conway said.

How then, does the office complete the tricky task of finding the owner of the lot in order to charge them for the work?

Conway said the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections recently hired four new employees tasked with tracking down owners of these abandoned lots.

Once contacted by the office’s investigators, the property owner will have 10 days to clean and green the property on their own, before the city steps in.

Throughout June, the KSNAC has worked with the Office of Neighborhood Services, and Schaumburg said, already the effort has made a significant impact on problem properties throughout the community.

“We wanted to take advantage of the way they [the Office of Neighborhood Services] can charge and ticket property owners,” she said. “We’re already getting a huge amount of lots [cleaned].”

In order to keep track of the work, the KSNAC has developed a vacant land database which tracks properties that need to be addressed as well as ensuring that, as owners are found and lots are cleaned, the information is kept on hand for any future concerns.

The partnership will continue throughout the summer, said Conway, as due to a “lack of resources for our programs,” it could take up to two months for the city office to address some properties.

Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215–354–3124 or hmitman@bsmphilly.com