A complaint filed by landlords Michael, Andrea, Michelle and Kimberly Parkhill in late 2008 and reviewed by PW noted that because of the Commission’s vote against the ordinance, and Council’s lack of prior knowledge of that recommendation, “City Council’s adoption action of the Overlay is a nullity, as is the Overlay itself, because the City’s Home Rule Charter limits the ability of City Council to adopt legislation on zoning and various other real estate-related issues in the absence of a recommendation.”
“But no one questioned it,” says another landlord in the area, who asked not to be identified.
Kramer says the entire process was quick. “Somehow [the bill] got approved and it came into law and the next thing you know we were dealing with it,” he remembers.
Section 2-307 of the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter, which is the rule in question, reads, “The Council shall not enact any bill which shall in any manner affect any zoning ordinance, the Physical Development Plan of the City, plans of streets and revisions of such plans, and land subdivision plans or any bill which would authorize the acquisition or sale of City real estate without first receiving the recommendations thereon through the Mayor of the City Planning Commission.”
“It was one of those things where, you don’t have to figure out how it passed,” says a landlord who owns property in the area. “[Former Mayor John Street] lives in the neighborhood. The neighbors complained to him, he was the mayor, he got it done.”
Even though the ordinance was at first not enforced (because doing so would have required the government to invade people’s privacy, which is illegal), the situation quickly deteriorated. And that’s where it gets tricky.
At the start of the fall 2008 semester, the Department of Licenses & Inspections began doing more inspections, often knocking at student-occupied houses in the area with claims of inspecting smoke and carbon dioxide detectors. Many tenants living in the area received a letter from L&I in early October, saying if the owner of his/her property is cited for a violation, the “property may be closed and you will be asked to vacate and find another place to live.”
Some landlords gave their tenants strict orders: Don’t let L&I in; tell them you’re not students; disguise some beds to look like couches. One owner even put his student-tenants on the house’s deed for two years to get around the “not owner-occupied” language.
One landlord who spoke to PW said his tenants didn’t let L&I in the house, but that the city deemed his property student housing anyway. “And when I said, ‘How did you come to that conclusion?,’ she said, ‘I saw books in the house,’” when tenants opened the door a crack.
“They essentially banned outright, persons based on membership of a class,” Stouffer opines, “and they rely on private citizens to report to L&I. The law is based on citizens reporting on each other. It discriminates between owners and renters.”
Vivian VanStory is wary of Council President Darrell Clarke’s plan to bring a Neighborhood Improvement District (NID)—a nonprofit established by City Council in which a tax is used to improve the district—into the community. Unlike VanStory’s neighborhood improvement efforts, which don’t cost residents a dime, Clarke’s NID would charge property owners, like VanStory, a fee on top of their real-estate tax. While she admits that parts of the neighborhood could use significant improvements, it’s the process of creating the NID that, VanStory says, intentionally neglects any due process.