The five-alarm fire that leveled the Thomas Buck Hosiery building in Kensington, taking the lives of two firefighters, has prompted a detailed investigation into the building’s owners, the Lichtenstein brothers.
Surrounding neighbors complained for months about the dilapidated, five-story factory that was reportedly left open to squatters and vagrants. Philadelphia L&I issued three citations to the Lichtenstein brothers, but each fine was met with no response.
While the cause of the fire is yet to be determined (it probably won’t be for some time, according to Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers), the Brooklyn family of Michael, Nahman and Yechiel Lichtenstein have hired a New York law firm to represent them, releasing a public statement that calls the incident “an unspeakable tragedy.”
Today, more details have emerged on the landlords- details that expose Philadelphia’s ongoing struggle to keep absente landlords like the Lichtenstein brothers in check.
The case of Lichtenstein family is typical of many absentee landlords in Philadelphia. They’ve been accumulating real estate in Philadelphia since 2006, amassing over 30 properties located throughout the city. In a Daily News report, residents who live next to another Lichenstein-owned building at 5736 Belmar Terrace assert that the owners have the left building abandoned for years; now it’s inhabited by drug dealers.
Of the Lichtenstein’s 31 deeds, 24 have outstanding taxes or penalties, totalling $385,000 owed to the city. So how were the Lichtenstein’s able to let so many properties deteriorate without paying fines?
Well, Christopher Sawyer, who’s been the media’s go-to source on deadbeat property owners as of late, describes such owners as “property squatters,” landlords who buy up dozens of properties for the sole purpose of selling them for profit at a later date. In an article Sawyer contributed to Philebrity, he explains the phenomenon in detail:
“It works like this: You buy a parcel cheaply, hopefully close to where gentrification may one day come, and you sit on it. You don’t pay taxes, you don’t take care of L&I violations, you don’t have to bother with any of that sh*t. Property taxes? Unless you live in Chestnut Hill, the City will do nothing to collect on it.”
Eventually, property squatters find a buyer who, as a part of their agreement, will make good on any outstanding fines or taxes on the property, which probably explains why the Lichtenstein family ignored L&I’s repeated violations.
Sawyer and other concerned Kensington residents knew about all this before the fire broke out, that’s why they “carpet-combed”311 services with complaints about the Thomas Buck Hosiery building for months leading up to the fire. Eventually, Sawyer convinced a City Council staff member to list for the property for sheriff’s sale, a process that was still ongoing when the fire occurred.
Mayor Nutter has said that officials will be conducting a full review of all properties owned by the Lichtensteins. According to the Inquirer, Mayor Nutter believes “there is some level of neglect” by the owners in not providing any maintenance on such a large facility.
District Attorney Seth Williams was more reluctant to place blame on the owners, stating, “We’ll try to find out if, in fact, someone started the fire. That is sometimes separate and distinct from the issue of the building itself, whether the building was just so dangerous.”
It’s clear that the Kensington blaze has motivated officials to take a relatively closer look at L&I’s code enforcement, but whether or not any positive will come of it is yet to be seen. In the meantime, the neighborhood is struggling to cope with two deaths that were likely preventable.
As Sawyer puts it, “The City had at least five months to do something about it. And it didn’t. And now two of our bravest are dead.
Written by Arielle Hontscharik and Chris Lipczynski
Source: Philly.com, Philebrity | Photos: Lehigh Valley Live, Stamford Advocate, Penn Live