Category Archives: Home Improvement

Securing Your Investment – Squatters Could Be Targeting Your Home’s Value

by Manuel McDonnell Smith

It’s every homeowner’s worst nightmare, having to confront a criminal taking items from inside your home. Keeping doors secure and investing in security systems helps to keep them out. But now, some thieves are looking to steal without even coming inside. Here’s how you can protect your deed from being stolen by clever thieves, or even by “squatters” looking to take over a residence you own while it’s in transition.

  • Be sure that your home does not give the appearance of being vacant. Use light timers and be sure that mail gets collected regularly and does not accumulate at your door. If you’re leaving your home for a period of time, have a trusted person keep an eye on your property.
  • Receiving a payment book or information from a mortgage company that’s not expected could be a sign that there’s trouble. Whether your name is on the envelope or not, don’t just throw it away. Open it up, figure out what it’s saying, where it’s coming from, and follow up with the company that sent it.
  • If you do not have it already, investigate the possibility of purchasing title insurance from a trusted professional and reputable agency. Most policies provide coverage against forgery, impersonation, and other problems that arise that might not be found in public records or are missed in the title search process.
  • Pennsylvania Law mandates the city’s Record’s Department to record all deed and mortgage documents that are filled out completely, even if the information that is provided later proves false. It’s good practice to check the status of your deeds with the City’s Records Department from time to time to ensure that any fraudulent transactions have not been recorded. They are located in room 154 of City Hall. You can also request records by mail or online if you cannot make it downtown, but there may be a fee charged for that service.

If you detect or suspect fraud, correcting the issue could be complicated. So many agencies, including the City, recommend obtaining the services of an experienced real estate lawyer as soon as possible. In addition to contacting police, you can also get additional assistance by calling the District Attorney’s Office at District Attorney’s Office at 215-686-9900 & city’s Consumer Affairs Unit in Room 167 at City Hall at 215-686-7598.

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Want less crime? Fix those broken windows, says new PENN Study

via Penn Medicine Press

Fixing up abandoned buildings in the inner city doesn’t just eliminate eyesores, it can also significantly reduce crime and violence, including gun assaults, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine report in the first study to demonstrate the direct impact of building remediation efforts on crime. The findings were published this summer in the journal PLOS ONE.

The research team, which included Michelle Kondo, PhD, a former research fellow at the Perelman School of Medicine now a scientist with the USDA Northern Research Station, John MacDonald, PhD, a professor of criminology at Penn, and Charles Branas, PhD, a professor of epidemiology at the Perelman School of Medicine, found a significant decrease in serious and nuisance crimes in areas around remediated buildings after Philadelphia began enforcing an ordinance requiring owners of abandoned buildings to improve their facades and install working doors and windows in 2011. The most significant reduction (down by 39 percent) occurred for gun assaults around remediated buildings in the year following improvements.

“Replacing broken windows and doors is an effective deterrent of crime—and a low-cost alternative to demolishing abandoned buildings,” MacDonald said. “During a time when big cities like Philadelphia are looking to tackle issues of crime and violence, this study points to a potentially effective tactic for municipalities to continue or implement in helping make their neighborhoods safer and ultimately improving health outcomes.”

Prior research suggests that vacant and abandoned places have a significant and negative impact on community health and safety.  The “broken windows” theory proposes that abandonment sends a signal to would-be offenders that committing crimes is acceptable and will likely go unchallenged or unseen.  A sister study of abandoned land, not buildings, conducted by Branas, MacDonald and others in 2011 found an association between greening remediation of vacant lots and reduced risks of neighborhood violence, stress, and sedentary behavior.  Other studies have found associations between boarded-up buildings and drug-related deaths and sexually transmitted diseases.

“City-wide, we found significant reductions in total crimes, assaults, gun assaults, robberies and nuisance crimes associated with ordinance compliance,” said Kondo, lead author of the study. “This could be the ‘broken windows theory’ in action, with new doors and windows and a newly cleaned building facade signaling to potential offenders that a property is occupied and crime is not tolerated.”

To address the 40,000 or so vacant properties tallied up in Philadelphia in 2010 and the issues that came with them, the city started enforcing a “Doors and Windows Ordinance” in 2011.

Researchers found that of the 2,356 buildings cited by the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections, 29 percent complied with the ordinance between January 2011 and April 2013.  The team then compared the number of reported crimes and acts of violence at these “treatment” sites, where abandoned building owners had complied with the ordinance, to sites that had not complied, within one-half of a mile.

The crime and violence classifications included:  all crimes, assaults, gun assaults, robberies, property crimes (burglaries and thefts), narcotics sales and possession, and nuisance crimes (vandalism, illegal dumping, public drunkenness, and disorderly conduct).

Compliance with the ordinance was associated with significant decreases in many of the crime and violence categories.  City-wide, in areas around abandoned buildings that were remediated, over the 12 month average follow-up period in the study, there was an estimated 19 percent reduction in assaults, 39 percent reduction in gun assaults, and a 16 percent reduction in nuisance crimes. The size and significance of some of these effects, however, varied by section of the city.

Control sites were not statistically different from treatment sites in terms of the median age of the surrounding residents, their household income, education level, or poverty level.

“This study provides useful evidence that cities can directly impact some of their most pressing public health challenges, like violence, by changing the places within which their residents live, work, and play, as opposed to relocating residents as has been done in the past,” Branas said. “These sorts of place-based programs are gaining credibility as practical and low cost, yet potentially high-return, health and safety solutions when compared to other options.”

Co-authors include Danya Keene, PhD of the Yale University School of Public Health and Bernadette Hohl, PhD of the Rutgers University School of Public Health and School of Criminal Justice.

The study was supported in part with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Health & Societies Program at Penn and a U.S. Centers for Disease Control grant to the Penn Injury Science Center.

2015 Household Hazardous Waste Collection Program

The Streets Department will host its second Household Hazardous Drop-off event of the 2015 season on Saturday, May 16, announced Streets Department Commissioner David J. Perri.  The event will be held at the Department’s 1st Highway Yard, 4800 Parkside Avenue.  Residents may drop off materials between 9 AM and 3 PM.

The Streets Department’s Sanitation Division hosts Household Hazardous Waste Drop-off events throughout the year to allow residents an opportunity to recycle or dispose of unwanted Household Hazardous Waste accumulated in their home or garage. By taking potentially hazardous materials to a Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) drop-off event, we can avoid contamination of the environment, harm to sanitation collection workers, and remove potential hazards from our homes.  Trained staff will be on hand to sort and properly package materials dropped off for disposal.  No waste materials generated by a business will be accepted.

recycle-rewardsPhiladelphia Recycling Rewards Program members may use this opportunity to earn extra Recyclebank® points.  A coded card worth 25 points will be given to Philadelphia Recycling Rewards participants as a bonus for dropping off household hazardous waste at any of the City events.

In 2014, over 4,433 residents dropped off approximately 297,432 pounds of household hazardous waste were dropped off at the Department’s Sanitation Convenience Centers. Over 7% of the hazardous materials accepted were recycled including 30,000 gallons of used motor oil, 32,000 gallons of antifreeze, and 4 tons of automotive batteries.

Household Hazardous Waste can also harm the environment; one gallon of used oil can contaminate one million gallons of freshwater.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) estimates that the average household can accumulate up to 100 pounds per year of oil base paint, used oil, solvents, pesticides, car batteries, and other hazardous household wastes.  These materials can be safely disposed of by taking them to a Household Hazardous Waste event.

Checking product labels for these key words can identify household Hazardous Waste: TOXIC, FLAMMABLE, CORROSIVE, and REACTIVE.  As a reminder, latex or water base paint is not hazardous and can be placed in the regular trash if the paint is dried up or solidified with an absorbent material such as kitty litter.

For additional information, please visit the Streets Department’s website at http://www.philadelphiastreets.com/hazardous-waste.aspx or contact the Customer Affairs Unit at 215-686-5560.  For all City services, call 3-1-1.

Habitat For Humanity Lands In Parkside

by Michael Burch

Here we see volunteers and staff from Habitat for Humanity working up high on one of the historic houses on Viola Street.
Here we see volunteers and staff from Habitat for Humanity working up high on one of the historic houses on Viola Street.

Located in the Parkside section of West Philadelphia is a quiet little block named Viola Street. Viola Street is one block south of Parkside Avenue. Many people don’t realize that much of Parkside was built after the country’s first world’s fair which was known as the Centennial Exposition of 1876. All of the 4200 Block of Parkside and part of Viola Street are listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to the many examples of Victorian style homes on the block. Unfortunately, like many other neighborhoods in this city, Viola Street experienced a serious decline during the 1980’s and 1990’s. The reasons for this decline can be debated by sociologists at another time.

For our purposes city neighborhoods need restoration and upkeep. A beautiful neighborhood can become blighted as home owners move out and reinvestment in homes decreases. Thus on Viola Street the neighborhood lost homes and residents. That, however, was in the past. Today Viola Street is on the upswing thanks to the efforts of concerned local residents and organizations like Habitat For Humanity!

Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia, is an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International which is one of the largest nonprofit homebuilders. They recently acquired the smaller The Other Carpenter, a much smaller concern with similar ambitions. The goal of Habitat for Humanity and the Other Carpenter is to transform lives and our city by building quality homes in partnership with families in need, and uniting all Philadelphians around the cause of affordable housing.

Sometime around 2007 residents on the block came together to form the Viola Street Residents Association, a group dedicated to reclaiming their neighborhood and putting an end to the Blight. Community Block Captain Lorraine Gomez gives us some insight into the formation of the Viola Street Residents Association. She states that “the Viola Street Residents Association is a grassroots collective committed to the revitalization of our street and the surrounding East Parkside community. VSRA’s aim is to reverse the tide that contributes to our community’s decline. We aim to reach our goal through resident participation in beautification, greening and restoration projects.”

Ms Gomez’s family has been on Viola Street since the late 1950’s and Ms. Gomez herself has been living bock on the block for the last ten years, and in that time VSRA was formed.

Ms Gomez goes on to say “Viola Street Residents made contact with The Other Carpenter in 2005 when they were doing the “Porch Rehab Program”.

This was the beginning of Viola Street’s current rehabilitation phase. We now fast forward to the summer of 2014 on Viola Street. For at least six weeks during the summer, Habitat for Humanity staff, volunteers, and Viola residents have been diligently and meticulously working on repairing sidewalks, fixing windows, removing weeds, working in their community garden , and scraping paint and repairing leaks. It has been a massive job and has created quite a stir in the usually quiet neighborhood. Viola resident and recipient of the Habitat for Humanity Home Repair Program, Mr Vannie Graham, commented enthusiastically on the program by stating “Its great work being done; you can’t beat it. I’m very happy with the program and its positive results”.

Picture above shows area residents working hand in hand with Habitat staff and volunteers.
Picture above shows area residents working hand in hand with Habitat staff and volunteers.

The Parkside Journal wishes to make its readers aware that there is an application process that residents must complete and there are specific guidelines that must be met in order to be considered as a candidate for participation in this program. Gomez goes on to add that “the reaction from my neighbors has been overwhelming. Habitat for Humanity and The Other Carpenter have been like a transfusion for our block. Viola Street is 51% home owner occupied. Our homes are well kept on the inside but may not be the healthiest on the outside. We have some neighbors who are on a fixed income and cannot afford to have all of the repairs done that are needed at the same time.

Habitat for Humanity has allowed us to afford to have the entire repair work done professionally and at one time. You can feel the energy on the block as the work nears completion.

In an effort to learn more about Habitat’s Home repair programs I asked Cassie O’Connell, the Director of the Other Carpenter to elaborate on their programs. “Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia has two branches of home repair; The West Philadelphia repair program (The Other Carpenter) performs block-based repairs in East & West Parkside, Mantua, Mill Creek, Belmont and Cathedral Park. Blocks may apply with a minimum of 4 homeowners at our office at 4127 W Girard Avenue or by calling 267-284- 0310.

We also have a special Weatherization and Home Repair Program which performs repairs in focus areas across the city and is currently searching for veterans to apply. Any Interested applicants can call 215-765-6000 for more information.”

In continuing to talk to O’Connell, I learned that Habitat’s home repair programs are funded largely by individuals, foundations, corporations and faith groups. “Thrivent Financial donated $40,000 for the Viola Street project and area faith groups raised an additional $15,000.

That’s a huge investment on Viola Street; I asked her what she thought of the reactions from the Viola Street community.

O’Connell says “Viola Street represents what Habitat is all about – bringing people together to do something none of us could have done on our own. I’m incredibly grateful to all the dedicated and joyful people who came together – Thrivent Financial, area Churches, individual volunteers, the VSRA, Historical Preservationists, the Historical Commission, skilled carpenters, the Laborer’s Union, youth groups, the Cement Mason’s Union, summer interns, our subcontractors and suppliers, Habitat’s staff and Partner Families, and most of all the Viola Street residents. A huge thank you to everyone for making it happen!”

Public Forum: Real Estate Taxes

by Joyce Smith

If you haven’t heard yet, the City passed legislation in October 2013 to help homeowners who are facing collection activity because of delinquent real estate taxes.

Tax

The new bill has created a more transparent and uniformed system for homeowners seeking to make payment arrangements. The highlights of the new bill includes a “Owner Occupied Payment Agreement” (OOPA) application that will be used by the City’s Department of Revenue and their collection agents: Linebarger, Blair & Goggan, and GRB.

The amount of a payment agreement will be based on homeowners’ level of income. OOPA offers two options.

  • Option 1 is set at an amount based on income. This is the best option for low income homeowners.
  • Option 2 is an individualized amount that will be based on household income and expenses.

(Most likely the monthly payment will be higher than Option 1) Where you fall on the income scale will determine if you will have a portion (a percentage of penalties and interest) of your tax bill forgiven. The very low income are entitled to the higher tax forgiveness amount.

All applicants must also show proof of residency such as a utility bill or driver’s license. But, everyone must remain in good standing on payment agreements for back taxes as well as future

But, what is new in this legislation is that for the first time non record owners or heirs will be allowed to get payment agreements. For example, if a granddaughter is living in her deceased grandmother’s property and needs an agreement to pay back taxes she will be allowed to get a payment agreement even though the deed is not in her name.

Prior to this bill, heirs could not get a formal agreement if the deed was not in their name because of the Tangled Title problem. (Applicants will need to submit documentation to show their relationship to the deceased’s property owner). This allows the applicant time to get assistance they need to transfer the deed into their name.

But, all the changes are not good. There will be harsher penalties for people who fall behind in their payment agreements. In the old system, people would make agreements, fall behind or stop making payments for awhile and then apply for a new agreement. Sometimes they would do this over and over. But, this will not be the case now.

Homeowners must stay current on their agreement and pay their annual taxes in a timely manner. If you fall behind there is a limited window of time to catch up before you breach your agreement. And, The City can resume collections and have the property sold at Sheriff Sale.

So, Philadelphia homeowners should try to stay current on their taxes, and get a formal agreement on back taxes if needed.

If you are behind in your taxes, you should look into getting a payment agreement. And, if you find your self in a position where you might miss a payment or fall behind on your formal arrangement you should contact the City (or their agent). Don’t wait until you breach your agreement. It won’t be the time to procrastinate……but, it will be the time to act proactively.

If you have any questions about the new legislation or facing collection or foreclosure activity you can call “Save Your Home Philly Hotline at 215- 334- HOME (4663)

Free Rain Barrel

by Sharon Hale Jenkins

I have to admit I was rather skeptical at first about Philadelphia’s new Rain Barrel Program. My first thought was here is yet another rule or requirement about how to live my life in the city. However, after going through the process of actually installing a rain barrel, I see the benefits of the program.

We can all agree, I think, that it has been an unusually wet summer and that unwanted storm water runoff is a real problem in the city and its’ surrounding counties.

A rain barrel installed outside of a Philadelphia Home
A rain barrel installed outside of a Philadelphia Home.

Flooding has been a major problem in many parts of the city and in the country as a whole. It appears that our summers will continue to get wetter. The rain barrel program can help deal with this situation by removing some of the excess water from our storm drains and storing it for use at a later time.

There are many places you can purchase a water barrel, but I took advantage of the city’s FREE rain barrel program. The city’s rain barrel program is the best way to obtain and get a free rain barrel installed through the City of Philadelphia’s Water Department.

There is a required workshop that you must attend and you must also bring several forms showing you live in the home where the rain barrel is to be installed. If you are a renter, your landlord must provide the required forms that may be downloaded, completed and brought with you to your scheduled workshop.

Workshops are offered four times throughout the program season. However, it is best if you place your contact information on the program list to ensure you will be notified early in the beginning of the season.

After attending the one hour workshop and submitting the required forms, I was called for a Saturday appointment within three weeks. I connected my garden hose to the barrel after the installation. The savings on my monthly water usage were seen and felt IMMEDIATELY!!

To get more information about the City of Philadelphia’s rain barrel program, contact Aaron Slater at:  @ecasavesene