Foreclosure and bankrupt property owners can cause problems for tenants

Bankruptcies happen a lot.  In fact, they occur more frequently than divorce.  Know anyone who’s divorced among your friends and family?  Chances are you have twice as many as that number who have “went BK”, the financial-speak for the term.  People are just more happy to talk about their divorces than about that time they went BK.

But what happens if the person who goes BK is your landlord?  When this was happening to a lot of real estate investors in 2007-2009, Congress stepped in and passed Obama’s Protecting Tenants In Foreclosure Act of 2009 which allowed rental leases to survive a foreclosure.  But that law has since expired.

I really hated the glib TV spots during the Great Recession where TV anchors rattled off advice that boiled down to “talk with the bank” and “talk with the landlord”.  Most renters who find themselves in this situation learned of it because they discovered foreclosure notices from the bank arriving to the house or the landlord told them.  Today I am going to give you practical advice.

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From the Philadelphia Alert Service:

“On Friday, January 1, 2016, at 1:00pm, members of Philly Coalition for REAL Justice, Black Lives Matter, and others plan to gather at City Hall during the annual Mummers Parade to protest/demonstrate, and demand justice for the following issues: Black Lives Matter, Fund Our Schools, Fight for $15, Stop Oil Bombs, etc. “The Civil Affairs Unit will assign personnel to this activity. The Commanding Officer Central Police Division and the Commanding Officer of the 6th and 9th Police District have been notified of this event.”

I’m getting a vision in my head of what BLM + Froggy Carr might look like.  I think I’ll skip that and go to lunch.

EDIT: Ahh, it’s not breaking, the announcement was put out yesterday morning. This was passed to me without a date on it.  But as I see no news outlets making much of a mention about this, it’s sorta-breaking.  Mea culpa.

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Honestly.  I don’t think I even need to comment on how stupid this is.

Except… this house is in Kensington and apparently it’s under-agreement.   Well, there’s a sold sign on the front (around the corner) anyway.  This house was one of the last to sneak through the old zoning code before it was changed to ban off-street parking in RSA-5 zoning districts.  Construction start was slow, but It was finally put up recently by Steve Shklovsky and Shimi Zakin of Metro Impact, a Southampton, PA based “luxe” homebuilder.   Or, as I sometimes call them… Metro Impaction.


When the house went to zoning years ago the refusal was only for rear yard depth. The RCO over the property, East Kensington Neighborhood Association, opposed the variance on grounds of the curb cut and garage front.  With an impending change to the zoning code coming, Metro Impact paid to fast-track this property through under the old code.

One wonders what the Streets Department is gonna do with this problem.   As you can see that’s brand new concrete around the stormwater inlet and that is a fireplug to the left.  My guess here is this design decision to put a garage front art this spot was likely a result of a dispute with the city over relocating the fire plug to accommodate the house, where the car would have went into the rear yard.

There’s not even any parking pressure here and the MFL is literally steps away, so the garage isn’t even a premium.

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The City has finally published a mostly-complete dump of the Real Estate Tax balances for the entire city.

Mind you, as boring as this sounds, this is the conclusion of a nearly two decade battle (there were people before me pounding their fists on the table demanding these dumps) between the general public and open data advocates such as myself and the City’s infamous and recalcitrant Revenue Department.   Philadelinquency became famous for going around the Revenue Department and publishing its own dumps of Revenue’s records–the first ever for the city.

A program I wrote called RevenueBot would periodically wake up when City employees go home from work and quietly peg the Revenue Department’s tax lookup webpage and scraping the information, carefully spacing the pull requests out so no one would notice that the entire database was being slurped.  Around 6 o’ clock in the morning it would go back to sleep so City employees would be none the wiser when they returned.

The trick to making it all work was getting a reliable list of all the valid BRT (now called OPA) accounts so the bot would simulate typing each account into a browser and clicking the search button.  The Revenue Department changed their website in 2012 to block people from hot-linking directly to account information in the URL.


With the data I used it to build maps like this one showing how bad the City’s real estate tax collection crisis is.  We are worst in the nation.

The tax data is also highly indicative of blight.  Almost all blighted property in Philadelphia is severely tax delinquent.  Combined with other data points such as L&I violations, and pinpointing when the deed last changed hands and where the deed-holder is, you can get an idea of which blighted properties are truly abandoned and which ones are held by “buy and hold” speculators, which I call “active owners”.

It’s these actively-owned blighted properties that are the most interesting because the mysterious owner behind the deed is financially motivated to hold on to their deed.  With that leverage the City can then use its enforcement muscle to force the property owner to do basic upkeep.

1817 E YORK ST - The site of the Bucks Hosiery factory
1817 E YORK ST – The site of the Bucks Hosiery factory

For instance, the infamous Bucks Hosiery factory that killed two Philadelphia firefighters was held by an active owner.  I tried very hard to crowbar the deed off of him.   When the owner was taken before a grand jury it was revealed that my efforts really did affect him deeply (I put the grand jury report down at the bottom if you want to have a look-see, it’s really sad); he was desperate to hold on to the deed to his investment but certainly unwilling to spend any money at the same time to seal the property up from drifters.  He even went to zoning trying to make his property “plans approved” to make it a sexier sell.  It owed over twenty grand in back real estate taxes and I almost got it to Sheriff’s Sale.  Project HOME has since acquired the property and intends to build affordable housing on the site.

If you’re going to fight blight, this data is an absolutely necessary tool to get the job done.  You can’t figure out which blight is worth fighting and where to direct your efforts without it.

I have added a link to this data dump up at the top of PDQ.