Tax delinquency, blight, and one blogger’s fight

It’s no secret that one of the prevailing quality-of-life problems in the River Wards, and in the entire city, is blight.

Where, then, does blight come from, and how can it be fixed? Several city officials have spoken to the problem and its connection to another — tax delinquency.

It took Kensington resident and software engineer Christopher Sawyer, the blogger behind Philadelinquency.com, about five hours to write a tool that cross-referenced data from the Department of Licenses & Inspections’ new website — the website features an interactive map of Philadelphia properties — with real estate tax histories already available online.

Sawyer’s result was an online map, entitled “Delinquent Landlords,” which was posted on the site in October.

There are hundreds of blue markers covering the River Wards and all of Philadelphia on Sawyer’s map. Each denotes a property that is in debt to the city of Philadelphia for back property tax, but has an active rental license. The map does not include abandoned or private parcels, or buildings that are being illegally rented out.

“If there’s anything that shouldn’t piss you off more as a property owner, or as a tenant, it’s people who produce income from their property holdings but don’t bother to pay the city its fair share of property taxes,” Sawyer wrote alongside the map.

In the River Wards, at least $200,000 in back taxes is owed to the city by the hundreds of alleged rental properties appearing on Sawyer’s map.

One building on the 3100 block of Richmond Street in Port Richmond is listed as owing over $13,000.

The map shows another on the 2300 block of Mercer Street in Fishtown as owing more than $18,000.

A building on the block of 700 N. 2nd St. in Northern Liberties is listed as owing over $9,500 in taxes.

Sawyer declined to be interviewed, simply telling Star, “The map is there to highlight the city’s failure to do much of anything to stop the tax delinquency crisis.”

He did speak, however, as part of a televised segment hosted by Jeff Cole on FOX29 last week. On that segment, he asked, “Why is the city handing out these rental licenses at the same time as not checking to make sure that these taxes are paid?”

Mayor Michael Nutter’s office declined to comment on Sawyer’s blog. But multiple government sources told Star that unpaid back taxes are a very real and troubling issue for Philadelphia.

“A significant amount of the delinquency comes from landlords and property speculators who are simply taking advantage of our inefficient system,” Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez (D-7th dist.) told Star in an email message. “Our current system is not only inefficient for the city coffers, it actually increases the blight in our neighborhoods, and destroys property values.”

Quinones-Sanchez introduced City Council Bill 120054 in February, which would reform tax collection practices and create a firm timeline leading to foreclosure on delinquent property tax accounts.

Others said that the city is, indeed, making an effort to recover these taxes.

“I can’t speak to the accuracy of the information on his website, because the departments keep their own data. But I would assume he’s pulling liens and public information from us and whatever other sources are online, so I would assume that there’s a degree of accuracy here,” said Frank Breslin, deputy revenue commissioner of Philadelphia in response to the information presented on Philadelinquency.

However, Breslin did remark that sometimes, “These maps and this information can be very distorted.”

He pointed out that Sawyer’s map does not indicate if property owners are in a payment agreement with the city, meaning they are paying off their tax debt in installments, or if they are bankrupt, in which case they cannot be sued by the city for their tax debt.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of real estate tax delinquents out there. But the [revenue] department and the city are doing a lot to crack down on tax delinquents,” Breslin said.

Breslin said that the city’s increasingly hard stance on tax delinquents is proven by the growing number of sheriff’s sales of seized properties. He said they are aiming to bring that number up to 600 per month. He also said that properties owned by “nuisance landlords” are no longer eligible for payment agreements.

Aside from the active-rental-licensed properties that Sawyer singled out, the city is also dealing with vacant and abandoned properties.

“The problem is that the city really doesn’t want to become a land bank, they don’t want to own these vacant properties, because then it becomes a liability. It’s kind of a Catch-22,” said Anne Kelly, City Councilman Mark Squilla’s (D-1st dist.) chief of staff. “As far as Councilman Squilla, there’s not a lot he can do, or any city council member can do.”

Sen. Mike Stack (D-5th dist.) linked tax delinquency to the broader issues of blight and neglect that led to Kensington’s Buck Hosiery Factory fire in April, which took the lives of two firefighters. The property was owned by landlords who reside Brooklyn.

“A lot of bad things happen when you neglect properties, like the Kensington warehouse fire,” Stack said.

Stack, whose staff used Sawyer’s map to count about 100 delinquent landlords in the 5th state senatorial district, told Star that the city shouldn’t raise taxes on law-abiding taxpayers through the “actual value initiative” proposal, which would revalue Philadelphia’s property parcels, until they can crack down on tax delinquents.

Stack introduced State Senate Bill 1505 in May, which, if passed into law, would prohibit the city “from increasing the rate of taxation on any class of real property owners until the governing body has achieved a rate of collection of such tax at a rate of at least ninety-five percent.”

Additionally, City Council President Darrell Clarke introduced City Council Bill 120652 in September, which would double penalties on property owners owing more than $20,000 in property taxes. In October, he introduced Bill 120815 with Councilman Bobby Henon, which aims to increase oversight of private law firms hired by the city to sue property owners in foreign jurisdictions for non-payment of rent and ensure greater accountability.

“As the city moves closer to AVI, Council President Clarke believes it is more important than ever to crack down on scofflaws who own property in Philadelphia and are not paying what they owe,” Clarke’s spokeswoman Jane Roh told Star via email.

But Victor Pinckney, first vice president of The Homeowners Association of Philadelphia (HAPCO), defended tax-delinquent landlords, saying that they face high costs — such as a $150 rental license fee — and competition from unlicensed landlords who rent out space illegally.

“Our costs are going up and most of those guys [who owe taxes] you’ll probably find rent to low- to mid-income people,” Pinckney said. “These people are dealing with rental burdens of 60 percent, so a landlord can’t pass it on, so he‘s probably robbing Peter to pay Paul, with Peter in this case being the property tax.”

Sawyer doesn’t acknowledge anywhere on his blog the inherent difficulties the city faces in addressing these problems. But Philadelinquency does include guides on how citizens can file complaints to the Department of License & Inspections, how to perform a background check on a landlord, and even an explanation of blight laws.

“Don’t ignore property issues that are near you that affect you,” Sawyer urges citizens on his blog. “From overflowing garbage, to an unsecured vacant lot, to a burnt out shell, Pennsylvania and the city of Philadelphia already has a rich tapestry of laws that give your local government the power to do something about it.”

“If you’re dogged and determined, you will get results,” he continued.

On the FOX29 segment, Cole reported that the mayor’s office said it is “planning to hire a company to develop software which will provide an automated fix to the problem,” and that the process will take a year.

According to the report, the office also stated it would review 90,000 rental license renewals in January, and claims it will “press landlords to pay up.”

Reporter Sam Newhouse can be reached at 215–354–3124 or at snewhouse@bsmphilly.com.