The Pennsylvania Supreme Court answered that question last week in Rufo v. City of Philadelphia, when it ruled that the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) could require the owner of a vacant property in Philadelphia to install windows and doors rather than board up or otherwise seal the property.
The case turned on the constitutionality of a provision in the Philadelphia Property Maintenance Code that applies to any vacant property deemed to be a “blighting influence." (See Phila. Code, Sections PM-202 and PM-901.2. Note that the current version of the Code uses the term "blighting problem," but the definition remains the same.) The owner stated that he had previously installed windows at the property in question, the former Gretz Brewery at 1524 Germantown Ave., but said the windows were broken by vandals within a few days of installation. The owner argued that the “blighting influence” provision was focused solely on aesthetics rather than public safety, and was therefore an unconstitutional exercise of the City’s authority.
The City argued that the lack of real windows and doors on a property has a “significant adverse effect on the community,” and cited multiple studies that it used to craft its definition of blighting influence. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court sided with the City, finding that the City fairly explained the basis for enactment of the ordinance, while the owner “failed to offer any evidence or persuasive argument to overcome the presumed constitutionality” of the ordinance in question. You can read the full opinion here.
The takeaway? It’s getting harder to speculate in the city. From experience, I can sympathize with the owner’s argument: he’d make some cosmetic improvements to the building, only to see it vandalized soon thereafter. But in 2018, with a vibrant and growing city, that’s more an argument for why the property should not sit vacant rather than an argument for boarding or sealing it. Rehabilitation and redevelopment are the order of the day, and anyone who buys real estate in the city should plan accordingly.
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William R. McLaughlin, Esq.