Debris finally cleared from site of January house fire

A fire ripped through this rowhome on Ruan Street in Frankford in January.

A Frankford house made uninhabitable by a fire was sealed up by the city on July 5, and debris from the building was bagged up and stacked on the narrow pavement outside until it was collected a couple weeks later.

The fire on the 1900 block of Ruan St. was in mid-January. So why did it take nearly six months for the city to act?

There is a time frame for such work to be completed, but there are ways that can get stretched. What helps keep things moving, however, is some well-directed griping.

So, skipping ahead to the moral of this story: Don’t hesitate to call in a problem; the people who could do something might not know about it unless somebody tells them. Or reminds them.

Bridget Collins-Greenwald, deputy city managing director, said the Ruan Street property was cleaned out and boarded up by staffers in the city’s Clean & Seal unit, who, she said, should have gotten rid of the debris after their work on the building was completed.

A week later, however, that debris was still out on the pavement. Collins-Greenwald took care of that. A reporter checked on the property on July 20; no trash was outside. A neighbor said it was removed July 19.

A CLEAR PROCESS

According to Collins-Greenwald, the procedure to have a property cleaned and sealed is supposed to work this way:

A service request comes through the city’s 311 system to the Department of Licenses and Inspections.

L&I has 45 days (a month and a half) to answer a property-maintenance complaint.

L&I will issue violations and give the owner 35 days to comply (more than another month.)

After 35 days, an L&I inspector will look over the property.

If the property has not been cleaned up and sealed by the owner, the case will be sent to the Clean & Seal unit, which usually will do the work within 18 days.

Collins-Greenwald’s description of the clean-and-seal process shows that it all should take little more than three months.

So, it’s important to get the ball rolling as soon as a problem property is spotted.

“I advise everyone to use the 311 system,” Collins-Greenwald said in an e-mail to the Northeast Times. “L&I does do proactive inspections in certain areas (e.g. school inspections, business surveys of commercial corridors), but the most effective way to get an inspection is to call 311.”

EYEWITNESS TO DANGER

Michael Maenner, a deputy L&I commissioner, said a department inspector visited the property the night of the fire and declared the building unsafe.

But that three-month clock doesn’t start ticking immediately after the fire. The city gives the owner of a property involved in a fire a little leeway.

“If there is a fire, we try to give people time to get their insurance,” Maenner said.

Ultimately, however, the owner is responsible for the property, he added.

Notices were sent to the owner, but the owner’s address is the same as the address of the building L&I said was not safe. Nobody was home. The expectation is that the notice would be forwarded, Maenner said.

He said that, since no repairs were made, the property was referred to the Clean & Seal unit on May 20, a little more than four months after the fire. Although the unit is supposed to get to the property within 18 days, the unit is very busy this time of year, Maenner said, and the real time is about 25 business days — or five weeks. In this case, it was more than six.

The debris wasn’t picked up immediately after the unit did its work because a trash compactor broke down, Maenner said.

Maenner said the average cost of the unit’s work is about $2,300. A lien will be put on the property, and the matter will be turned over to the city Law Department for collection, he added.

There already is a lien on the property — for non-payment of taxes in 2010. According to the city’s online records, more than $1,300 is owed in back taxes, interest and penalties.

GRIPE EARLY, GRIPE OFTEN

Pete Specos, the Frankford Civic Association’s zoning officer, said reports of problem properties should be made early — and often.

In a phone interview last week, he said he knows he and other neighbors began reporting the burned-out property to city agencies, including the city’s 311 system, within a few weeks of the Jan. 16 fire. He said he called several times.

Debris from the fire was out on the pavement for months, said Al Rose, a member of the civic association’s board, who lives nearby.

The fire had affected several properties on the 1900 block of Ruan St. It began, Executive Fire Chief Daniel Williams said at the time, in personal items that had been piled on a porch.

A neighbor said a resident of the block had been evicted and she had stored her possessions — clothing and furniture — on the porches of nearby homes. That, Williams had said, was not legal, for the obvious reason that it was a fire hazard.

Emma Turner, who lived nearby, in January said the fire quickly spread through the clothing on one porch. The fire damaged several homes and three cars, she said. The Red Cross sheltered Turner, her family and other Ruan Street residents. ••

Contact John Loftus at 215–354–3110 or at jloftus@bsmphilly.com