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Philly L&I: Reporting contractors digging under basements is “one of the most important things” residents can do

Fernandez was referring to a practice called underpinning, which is all too often performed illegally in Philadelphia. The most prominent example of underpinning causing a house collapse happened last year at 633-635 E. Thompson in Fishtown - the longtime family home of then-94-year-old Clovena Klenk - when workers underpinned a neighboring house without the proper permits.

Days after it collapsed, Roger Klenk inspected the damage of what was left of his mother Clovena Klenk’s house in February of last year. | Photo by Tom Beck.

As the construction boom in Philadelphia persists into the new decade even despite the coronavirus pandemic, unfortunately so have shoddy construction practices. In South Philly alone, there have been two house collapses since May. At a Norris Square Civic Association online meeting on Thursday, city Department of Licenses & Inspections’ Director of Audits and Investigations Will Fernandez told residents that “one of the most important things” they can do to defend against unscrupulous contractors is to report construction workers who can be seen “digging [under] a basement in your neighborhood.”

Fernandez was referring to a practice called underpinning, which is all too often performed illegally in Philadelphia. The most prominent example of underpinning causing a house collapse happened last year at 633-635 E. Thompson in Fishtown – the longtime family home of then-94-year-old Clovena Klenk – when workers underpinned a neighboring house without the proper permits. Unfortunately, according to Fernandez, this shady practice is all too common among contractors.

“We see contractors who don’t do the right thing and try to sneak this work in thinking it won’t get noticed,” said Fernandez. “We see people do it without any permits. We see people try to hide it from L&I with other permits.”

For instance, contractors at the 633-635 E. Thompson St. collapse had filed a permit for “interior renovations,” which included installing new kitchen cabinets, countertops, flooring and paint. In reality, they were doing much more extensive work, including underpinning, which wasn’t included in the permit. Fernandez explained that contractors often do this to cut costs.

“You have to have an engineer who sits there all day, and it’s not cheap to pay an engineer to sit at your construction site,” he said. “It might be $200, $300 an hour. They have to sit there and monitor every single aspect of it. It might take three days. So a lot of contractors say, ‘I’m not going to pay an engineer $4,000 for three days of work … And that’s a recipe for disaster.”

As a result, L&I didn’t inspect the property as often as it typically would have, since technically the permit they had didn’t necessitate it.

Fernandez said the best way to combat contractors who conduct illegal underpinning is for residents to file a 311 report any time they see evidence of it. 

“One of the things you’ll see is people pulling buckets of dirt out of the basement or you’ll see them taking jackhammers and shovels into the basement because usually you have to jackhammer through the concrete foundation and to dig out the basement and try and make it deeper,” said Fernandez. 

Making the basement deeper is common practice in home renovations and house-flipping, Fernandez said, because it allows contractors to turn 6-foot basements into 8-foot basements, which means developers “can put an extra apartment down there and make a lot more money.”

He added that even so much as a dump truck filled with dirt in front of a house is reason for concern.

“For me, that’s enough evidence to submit a 311 complaint right there,” he said. 

Residents can file 311 complaints by either dialing 311 on their phones, using the 311 app, the 311 webpage or by filing in person at the 311 Walk-in Center in Room 167 of City Hall from 8:15 a.m to 4:15 p.m.

Fernandez admits that the process isn’t always the quickest.

“It’s a slow process,” he said. “I know that that can be very frustrating if you’ve got issues in your neighborhood that need to be addressed quickly.”

The process moves slowly, Fernandez said, because of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which “requires that we give every owner of the property due process before we take any action.”

When asked how residents can make sure a contractor is reputable, Fernandez said that residents should always check whether the contractor is registered with the City of Philadelphia by using the contractor lookup tool on L&I’s website. Another tip Fernandez shared was to search for the contractor’s name on the Court of Common Pleas website to see if the company has been sued. 

For more information about permits, deeds and assessments granted to specific properties, residents can type in the address of the site in question at atlas.phila.gov.

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