Tens of thousands of abandoned properties and vacant lots stretch across Philadelphia. Counts vary, but recent studies estimate at least 40,000 such properties, 75 percent of which belong to private owners — often delinquent on taxes and bills, often missing in action. In some cases, the owners might be dead or unwitting heirs. But others are slumlords and prospectors, whose game is to sit on these properties for as long as it takes to make a buck on them, while their properties attract crime, accumulate trash and fuel the spread of further blight.
For years, the city's policy regarding these troubled spots could be summed up in two words: Fine 'em. Following a complaint, the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) would send out an inspector, issue a fine and call it a day. A property could be fined dozens of times before the city took its owner to court. But under Commissioner Frances Burns, L&I cleared its 38,000-strong backlog of properties waiting inspection by instituing a radically simple policy: They now issue three fines, and then take an owner to court.