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Living next to a nightmare

In the river wards, there is no shortage of stories about nightmare neighbors — from hoarders to party houses to drug hangouts — who can make life on certain blocks almost unbearable for everyone else.

But for Michael and Laura Tepper, their nightmare stems from a lack of a neighbor.

When the couple moved into their home on Sergeant Street near Trenton Avenue in 2006, they were happy to meet Robert Brown, an older man who lived in the house next door.

Laura Tepper described Brown as a kind person, one to always say hello in the morning and wave from his stoop. But after suffering several strokes, Brown died in 2007.

Shortly after, Tepper said, a niece from Delaware met with another neighbor to get a set of keys for her uncle’s house.

That was the last time the Teppers saw Brown’s relatives at the property, and the house — now condemned — spiraled into a state of disrepair, attracting everything from feral cats and opossums to drug addicts and thieves.

“It was a little rundown when we moved in, but at least nice people lived there,” said Tepper. “They had a lot of pride in this one thing that they owned, and it was sad to see this happen.”

Tepper said Brown had no children. She and her husband have exhausted attempts to contact his niece, even offering to take care of legal work needed to obtain the title.

“It’s sort of been in this limbo ever since,” said Tepper.

That limbo has become a serious problem for the couple.

They worry constantly about fires, pests and vagrants.

In April, the couple gave birth to their first child, and they want to know that they’ll be raising their son on a safe block.

They also want to stay in their home on Sergeant Street.

While the Teppers are not in a unique position — about 300,000 similarly decaying, forgotten properties plague communities all over the state — they are exploring options to remedy the nightmare next door.

Tool to empower?

In November 2008, then-Gov. Ed Rendell signed the Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act, legislation that, when applied correctly, can return a dangerous, abandoned property to its days as a valuable community asset.

When the Teppers started to hear stories about the new law helping community groups address problem properties, they wondered if the act could offer a way out for them.

So far, though, the legislation has been applied only in a handful of instances statewide, and city officials and legal experts are waiting to see how neighborhoods will make use of the new tool.

In the most basic terms, the act creates a mechanism for individuals, community groups and municipalities to petition local courts to grant “conservatorship” of a property that is harming a community. Once a conservator is established, that entity — be it a neighbor or a nearby non-profit group with experience in redeveloping properties — can begin work to improve the property with some degree of assurance that the costs will be recovered.

The likelihood of a conservator recovering the money spent to improve a property is one aspect that has some observers wary of the act.

“You never really own the land,” said Sandy Salzman, executive director of the New Kensington Community Development Corp. “It’s not like you get this land and can do something with it.”

Salzman said many blocks in the Fishtown and Kensington area suffered in the 1980s and 1990s as families moved out and older residents passed away, leaving empty homes in an area where few investors wanted to buy.

“That’s what happened all over our neighborhood,” Salzman said of the predicament that confronts the Teppers.

Often, an abandoned home on a block could drag down the quality of life to the point where other homeowners simply moved elsewhere rather than deal with a troublesome property caught in legal limbo.

While the situation has improved in recent years as property values have increased in Fishtown and parts of Kensington, many blocks still feel the sting of these ghost houses.

Part of the problem, Salzman said, is that the city’s laws were designed to make taking over private property — even property owned by the deceased — a very difficult task.

“The laws around property ownership are almost sacrosanct. They made it so that it was very hard to lose your property, and that is something that goes all the way back to the Founding Fathers,” said Salzman.

She said the NKCDC was able to take control of about 150 parcels of land through eminent domain when the area was declared an “urban renewal zone” in the 1990s. Since then, the civic organization has worked to maintain the vacant land, draw in new investors and businesses, and create moderate-income housing.

It could be a gamble

While the NKCDC holds considerable clout as a federally funded non-profit, the Teppers have far fewer options when it comes to tackling the decaying home next door.

One option would be for them to force the property to sheriff’s sale by putting up a fee and then bidding with others to take over the property, which has almost $4,000 in unpaid property taxes.

But to the budding family, that process comes with inherent risks that make them anxious.

“There are a lot of complications with a sheriff’s sale. The problem is that ninety percent of the time people buy the house and sit on it, and it just continues to deteriorate. Or they could sell to a slumlord,” Tepper said.

That basically would return them to square one — living next to a dangerous property with little recourse. Adding to the headaches, the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections condemned the house in 2009, citing foundation issues. The house is slated for demolition, and marked with an orange “X”.

Tepper sees the condemnation as a drawback for legitimate developers who might otherwise buy the property as a rehab. “No one will buy it because they think it will cost $40,000 to fix,” Tepper said.

Salzman agreed that a sheriff’s sale could be a gamble, attracting speculators who’d probably do little to improve the property.

“It’s an auction, and you can be outbid,” acknowledged Salzman, adding that many properties bought at a sheriff’s sale remain neglected. “For the most part, they’re not going to take care of it. . . . At the most, they’ll pay the property taxes, but sometimes, not even that.”

Salzman said her group hasn’t tried to use the Conservatorship Act to take over such properties because of the risks that come with the responsibility.

“We don’t want to be the guinea pig that ends up stuck with something we don’t know what to do with,” said Salzman.

“The last thing we want is a property with a murky title and we can’t sell it.”

Right now, she said, the group is more capable of helping neighbors care for vacant land.

Exploring options

In the meantime, the Teppers are left to deal with a home that was used to access their house and a neighbor’s house during a December burglary.

“I walked to our back yard, and it looked like there had been a tornado. I realized that someone had tried to break in, and I ran to get out of the house,” Tepper recalled of the incident. “A neighbor said he saw the man on the roof of the (vacant house). He had broken into a neighbor’s house and stolen something. We worry about it all the time. We’ve caught people trying to get back there, and a lot of the time they are drug addicts and they just stare at you like a brick wall and keep going.”

In an attempt to prevent vagrants from living in the home, the Teppers have spent money building a fence around the back of the property, changed the locks, and screwed the front windows shut. In all, it was a considerable investment.

While the Teppers are looking into the Conservatorship Act as a way to take the work they’ve done to secure the house to another level — making it a viable property on the block — some experts say the new law might be a hard road to take if that’s their goal.

Too early to tell

Judy Berkman, a lawyer with Regional Housing Legal Services in Glenside, Pa., has drafted a practical step-by-step manual to give non-profits and others a roadmap on how to best use the new act.

That extensive manual, completed in May with an executive summary, is available at the group’s Web site, www.rhls.org.

The purpose of the act, she said, is to allow owners of neighboring properties to use a court-supervised process to remedy a nearby blighted property and sell it with a clear title to a new owner.

However, that isn’t the easiest task to accomplish.

One issue that could make the act a tough choice for the Teppers and others is that financing for improvements will be hard to come by. That’s because a conservator does not have a title to the property, and so far, Berkman said, banks have been reluctant to make such loans.

“Individuals will also have to pay expensive legal fees in addition to paying for costs like a title report, court filing fees, and other expenses. And the conservatorship is under, and subject to, government liens on the property, like real estate tax, water, nuisance and gas liens, which have to be paid before they have the chance to recover costs,” said Berkman. “Not only that, but the owner can come back at any time in the process. So you’re taking on a lot of risk.”

In fact, Berkman said of the current options for tackling a blighted property, the conservatorship act is “probably the most complicated and risky process.”

“It’s a great tool to handle a blighted property in the right circumstances,” said Berkman, “but it will probably be used sparingly until there is a solid track record of successful outcomes.”

So far, the act has been applied locally in only a handful of cases, and with mixed results.

The first Philadelphia petition was filed in September 2009 by Germantown Conservatory Inc., a freshly organized non-profit claiming to represent a number of community groups in that section of the city. But rather than seek to become the conservator of a single blighted property, Germantown Conservatory asked the courts to put the organization in charge of 330 properties and vacant lots.

That massive request led the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas to require that conservator petitions be filed for properties represented by one Office of Property Assessment (formerly Board of Revision of Taxes) account number. The ruling basically stated that hopeful conservators would have to apply to take over properties one at a time, rather than in large bundles.

In two other cases, owners of blighted properties were forced to come to court to fight applications for conservatorship, and ended up selling the properties to the prospective conservators out of court.

In what was probably the most effective instance — in terms of the intended use of the act — Skip Wiener, executive director of the non-profit Urban Tree Connection, took over an abandoned property in West Philadelphia and turned it into a community garden.

The fight from City Hall

Brian Abernathy, chief of staff for the city Managing Director’s Office, said the Nutter administration is looking at the Conservatorship Act as one of a number of tools that can be used to tackle the glut of abandoned homes in the city.

Deputy Managing Director Bridget Greenwald has been leading that effort, and said the new act hasn’t been used much in the city. Instead, her office is aggressively using Senate Bill 900 — a 2010 act commonly referred to as the Pennsylvania blight bill.

Using a staff of interns to track down absentee property owners, Greenwald’s office leverages Senate Bill 900 to go after the assets of those who have liens.

“Once you find an owner and go after their assets, people tend to take notice,” said Greenwald.

Of course, in the Teppers’ case, such a maneuver is useless because the rightful property owner is long dead.

When Greenwald hears stories like theirs, she usually recommends them to the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, a non-profit that provides residents with a toolkit for dealing with blighted properties.

But she added that, for individuals with limited resources, forcing an abandoned home to sheriff’s sale is often the easiest course of action.

After a summer of headaches related to the neighboring eyesore, the Teppers are again looking at that option.

Most recently, drug users broke the gate erected by the Teppers and camped out in the house during Hurricane Irene.

Other neighbors have seen random people coming and going at the house.

“The idea that there were crackheads getting high in that place while my son and I were sleeping next door during the hurricane, that just really freaks me out,” said Laura Tepper.

Those experiences have pushed her and her family to look for a home elsewhere.

“To be honest, at this point we are just thinking about when we are going to be able to leave,” she conceded. “But it’s going to be really hard sell our home with this place next door.” ••

Reporter Brian Rademaekers can be reached at 215 354 3039 or brademaekers@bsmphilly.com

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