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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Testimony of Joe DeFelice Before the PA House Policy Committee re: Absentee Landlords and Blight

Testimony before the House Democratic Policy Committee
Hearing on Landlords and Property Neglect
Tuesday, February 21
1 p.m.
CORA Services, 8540 Verree Road, Philadelphia, PA

Dear Members,

My name is Joe DeFelice and I am the newly elected Chairman of the Mayfair Community Development Corporation commonly known as the Mayfair CDC. I have been a board member with this organization since last May however have been involved at the community level for quite some time serving as President of the Mayfair Civic Association and a Board member of the neighborhood Townwatch and Business Association. Nevertheless my roots in this community go back to my birth and upon marriage I bought a house a block and a half from where I grew up. The neighborhood is not the same as it was when I grew up but change isn’t always a bad thing; it is how one affects that change that is the often difference maker.

In the 1990s Mayfair was a community that saw an extreme majority of home ownership made up by a mostly blue collar parochial population. In order to salvage that identity, Mayfair sought to get ahead of the curve by not waiting for decay to meet it, as it did so many other communities in the lower Northeast, but rather to begin revitalization before bottoming out. The Mayfair CDC covers an area between Harbison Avenue to the South to Rhawn Street in the North to Roosevelt blvd on the West side and Frankford Ave to the Eastside North to Cottman then to the river North to Sheffield Ave centered around the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood known as Mayfair. It was created in the late 1990s to combat blight before it began. The concept was that, rather than investors coming in and taking advantage of our premier housing stock of rowhomes and twins with parking spaces and yards ranging from 1200 – 2000 sq feet just a short car/public transportation ride from Center City, the neighborhood would invest in for sale properties thus keeping them off the market. The neighborhood would renovate these properties and sell them to family members of other Mayfair community members thus making our neighborhood more tight knit and family centered. Thus the Mayfair Community Development Corporation was founded and for the first half decade of its existence it operated at high functioning level thanks in part to grants from former House Speaker John Perzel.

The Mayfair CDC has been a successful neighborhood partner for years and renovating and rehabbing houses has only been a small part of their efforts. Since our inception, we have renovated the Devon Movie Theater, renovated a pocket park known as Mayfair Memorial Park, built the Mayfair Community center which is a state of the art recreation center at the heart of our neighborhood, rebuilt, with the assistance of the Mayfair Civic Association and brand new playground at Lincoln High School valued at $80,000, we have taken over operations of local neighborhood establishments such as Schaaf’s Market, started a cleansweep program that maintained our residential and commercial corridors and planted hundreds of trees and flowers in and around our main thoroughfares such as Cottman and Frankford Avenues. This type of neighborhood improvement has stabilized Mayfair while other communities in the area saw much more drastic change.

In the mid 2000s, housing prices began to skyrocket and the Mayfair CDC’s ability to keep up with and be able to pay for the amount of properties for sale began to lag. The average home price in Mayfair rose from $80,000-$100,000 to between $140,000-$200,000. These prices presented a conundrum for our stable neighborhood: longtime home owners began to jump at the chance to nearly receive double their home value and the Mayfair CDC couldn’t keep up with the high level of buying and selling. As we all now know, the mid 2000s were high times for investors and Mayfair was not spared. The amount of investors changed the landscape of the neighborhood, blocks that were once almost entirely owner occupied began to see an increase in renters and vacant homes. In our community that has lead to a significant amount homes that were not properly maintained or cared for by either the renters or the home owners.

Since the influx of renters, the issues related to these renters have risen abundantly. No longer could a neighbor, in many cases, simply knock on a door and ask the person who answers the door to fix their sidewalk, put lids on their trash cans, turn their music down etc. This became difficult because the amount of turnover in these rental properties produced new faces quite regularly. Gone were the days when you would see that familiar face. Gone were the days that the person responsible for fixing the sidewalk lived in the house of the door you knocked on. When you went to lodge complaints to a property denizen, it fell on deaf ears so you had to try and contact the landlord and many times those calls were made to area codes in North Jersey or New York City normally to someone who spoke none or very little English. This has been extremely detrimental to our community. Many neighbors, who were here for several generations are beginning to or have thrown their hands up and sought housing elsewhere; it seems that we contact our local state representative or city councilperson almost daily with issues that deal primarily with negligent or reckless tenants or absentee landlords.

I personally spent my last two Sundays on the phone with a landlord from Montgomery County about getting his tenants to be more respectful to their neighbors on the 3100 Brighton Street. This has lead to both the landlord and our Townwatch president staking out the house and documenting the issues which rain from loud music, to abundant dog feces, to using the back bedroom window as a trash shoot into the backyard. However, this landlord has been exception, atleast he returns the calls or makes it look like he cares what his tenant is doing to our community. It is the other kind, the absentee landlords, whose behavior or lack thereof eats through the fabric of our neighborhood and we have plenty of them.

On the 3400 block of Cottman Ave nearly half the block is comprised by renters many of whom last a year or less in that property. Their block is one of the gateways into our neighborhood repairs to fronts and facades are few and far between. On the 3300 block of Guilford Street, for three years the block was under siege by two renters who disregarded common decency and engaged in regular illegal activity, it wasn’t until these tenants beat their landlord for rent that the landlords threw up their hands from New York City and put the houses back on the market; thankfully those houses were sold to Mayfair residents and an Iraq war veteran. In a twin on the 3100 block of Nesper Street, a neighbor has had to call an exterminator atleast five (5) times in the last six (6) weeks to combat roaches from his nextdoor neighbor, when knocking on the door was no longer an option, we had to call Councilman Henon’s office in order to send out Licenses and Inspection as well as the City’s Health Department. On the 2800 and 2900 blocks of Unruh Avenue Street, longtime neighborhood residents are fed up after having neighbors allowing animals to defecate across all their lawns, blast their music, deal drugs, etc. Thankfully former Councilwoman Joan Krajewski’s office interceded on several occasions finally leading the landlord to issue an eviction letter. However, decent hard working people should not have to live like this and we shouldn’t need our elected officials to intervene for the purposes of decency and cleanliness.

These issues have been the number one types of complaints we have received in the last three years. I personally handle anywhere from two to five complaints a week that somehow comes back to an absentee landlord or a laissez faire tenant. We are here to help and hope that our example will show our new neighbors the type of behavior that we expect in our community. We are committed to combating blight and quality of life and will strive, through many difficulties, to continue to make Mayfair a great place to live, work and play. Thank you.