L&I Commissioner Perri: L&I needs more money to fight contractors’ ‘greed and ignorance’ that’s ‘putting the public at risk’
According to L&I spokeswoman Karen Guss, the funds will be used to hire an additional eight new inspectors for the department’s Audits and Investigations Unit.
On the heels of two house collapses due to alleged contractor negligence in Philadelphia, one of which happened on East Thompson Street in Fishtown and the other on Tulip Street in Kensington, city Department of Licenses and Inspections commissioner David Perri called on City Council to increase funding to L&I during his testimony in front of the Committee of the Whole budget hearing Wednesday afternoon.
He said he wanted to use the funds partly to launch an expansion of the department’s audits and investigations unit, which will focus on investigating contractor business practices.
According to L&I spokeswoman Karen Guss, the requested funds would be used to hire an additional eight new inspectors for the department’s Audits and Investigations Unit (currently there are only two). The department would also like to hire two clerks. Altogether, the 10 new employees would cost $523,484, according to Guss.
In his testimony, Perri specifically cited that he would use the additional inspectors to determine whether contractors are using city licensed subcontractors, employing workers who are qualified and have OSHA certifications, making sure they’re keeping insurance policies current and are working within the scope of their issued construction permits. Additionally, some of the extra funding would be used for additional demolition money to target unsafe and imminently dangerous buildings within those targeted areas, Perri said.
Guss told Star that audit inspectors are different from standard building inspectors in that their inspections are unscheduled and the focus is on a contractor’s business practices as opposed to the construction product produced.
Perri attributed recent house collapses to “excavation failures,” in which contractors fail to properly underpin houses when doing excavation work (for those who may not know, underpinning is when a contractor temporarily stabilizes a building’s foundation with weight support when removing the dirt around and under the foundation). This is especially dangerous when it rains because the soil becomes saturated and can further compromise the house’s foundation. Problem is, doing things the right way, according to Perri, is “about three times the cost” of doing it the quick way.
“The problem comes up when the contractor [and] the developer, looking to save a buck, cuts corners,” Perri said at the hearing. “They go and do this work because it’s a lot cheaper to do it without engineering oversight than it is to do it the right way….contractors, out of greed and ignorance, are taking shortcuts and putting the public at risk.”
In addition to increased funding, Perri acknowledged a desire to harshen penalties for contractors who cut corners. He said the department has developed a relationship with the office of District Attorney Larry Krasner and sent two recent cases his way for criminal investigation. Krasner’s office is “interested in these types of [construction] failures,” he said.
“When a builder or developer causes a collapse, we have to treat that as more than just a building code violation,” he said. “Just because the developer or contractor got lucky and didn’t kill or harm anyone doesn’t make his intent any less egregious.”
Perri said the inspectors employed by L&I spend most of their workday conducting legally mandated inspections.
“Most of their day is taken up with appointments,” he said. As a result, they simply don’t have time to conduct “patrol-type inspections” to peruse the streets searching for contractors’ unruly construction practices. Despite that, Perri said L&I has re-established patrol inspections on weekends to look for unpermitted work.
“The [L&I department’s] audits and investigations unit, they weren’t originally charged with looking at the scope of work that’s occurring, but we’ve added that to their list of duties that they’re going to do,” he said. “The other key thing out there is regardless of how many people we put out on the street, there’s 2,500 miles of roadway in Philadelphia — we can’t see it all.”
In the meantime, the department hopes to “develop better relationships with community leadership who can give us information on where shady construction is occurring or where work is occurring and no permits are posted.” He cited the Riverwards L+I Coalition Facebook group — a group of community-based leaders who serve as watchdogs on contractors in the River Wards region — as a source that’s “been giving us some really good information,” he said.
“When the time comes, we would like to try and replicate that type of effort” in other areas of the city, Perri said. He specifically called out Northwest Philly, which he said is “starting to see an increase in construction activity.”
According to Venise Whitaker, the creator of the Riverwards L+I Coalition Facebook group, she and four other community leaders have been meeting with Perri on a bi-monthly basis to discuss construction they see in the River Wards community. Two of the four other community leaders are Rachel Kaminski and Jen Romaniw. Kaminski is a committeewoman in the 31st Ward and leader of the River Wards’ “get the lead out” movement, which is focused on remediating the area in Olde Richmond, where the former Anzon lead smelting facility left lead in the soil. Romaniw is the granddaughter of Clovena Klenk, who was the owner of the Fishtown home that had collapsed at 635 E. Thompson St. Whitaker said she couldn’t identify the other two members of the coalition because they’re being sued by developers.
“Our main purpose is to educate people citywide,” Whitaker said. She said the Facebook group, which she started in October, exploded in membership after the Tulip Street collapse, going from about 200 members to more than 900. (Whitaker also serves as a community services representative for Council President Darrell Clarke, however, her involvement in the Riverwards L&I Facebook group is unrelated to her capacity with Clarke.)
Perri said that construction has “boomed” in the city recently. According to him, the department issued a record 58,206 construction permits, which represents an 8.2 percent increase over the previous year’s, and the department’s revenue increased 10.5 percent to a record $66.2 million. Additionally, he said that permit issuance is up 15 percent and zoning permit activity — which he called “a leading indicator of future construction activity” — for the fiscal year is up a whopping 32 percent.
“Through an aggressive enforcement program, a well-funded public demolition program, and an uptick in private demolitions, the number of unsafe buildings has now decreased since the start of the Kenney administration by 22 percent and the number of imminently dangerous buildings has decreased 61 percent to an even 100 properties,” Perri said in the opening statement of his testimony.
He added that the total headcount in the department increased over the past year from 375 to 405 total employees.
According to Whitaker, residents should keep an eye out for hazardous construction in the neighborhood. In the event that a contractor is blocking a street or sidewalk, she said, they are obligated to have building permits and contractor’s permits visible at the site. Residents should also take note of contractors digging out dirt from underneath a house’s foundation, which can be “problematic” if the contractor doesn’t have an underpinning permit.
“Dirt is always a telltale sign of underpinning digging out,” she said.