Pennsylvania, home to old communities of every sort, suffers from a kind of blight that goes hand in hand with its deep history. The problem of abandoned or neglected properties is felt all across the Commonwealth, found in both sprawling, urban centers like Philadelphia and in small, post-industrial cities and rural towns.
“One abandoned property can have a deleterious effect on a block,” said attorney Michael McIlhinney. “A homeowner living next to an abandoned property can suffer increases in their insurance costs or even have their policy cancelled. Raccoons thrive in abandoned houses, take up residence, and terrorize the neighbors.”
15 years ago, the Pennsylvania General Assembly searched for a solution. The result, the Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act, generally referred to as Act 135, was enacted in November 2008 and took effect the following year. The synopsis summarized it as “providing for court-appointed conservators to bring residential, commercial, and industrial buildings into municipal code compliance when owners fail to comply.”
Under Act 135, the Court of Common Pleas can be petitioned to appoint a conservator who will remediate enough of the blighted conditions of a property to safeguard the surrounding neighborhood and to potentially bring the parcel to a sellable level. If the property is then sold, the proceeds pay any liens, reimburses the conservator’s expenses, and remits the remainder, if any, to the owner. Act 135 has strict guidelines in defining what constitutes an abandoned or blighted property, who has standing to petition the court, and who is qualified to serve as conservator.
“It’s a powerful tool in remediating blight and preserving properties and has had a positive impact on preserving Philadelphia’s viewscape,” noted Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.
Over the course of its 15 years, this legal tool has given relief to residential blocks throughout the city. It has also been useful in preserving historic properties. “The Robert Purvis House is a hard case that ended well. It was on the brink of destruction,” said Steinke, referring to the former home of the noted abolitionist and Underground Railroad activist at 1601 Mount Vernon Street in Fairmount. After suffering from 20 years of neglect by an absentee owner and a partial demolition deemed necessary by the City, the house was placed under the conservatorship of the Spring Garden Community Development Corporation in 2018. Extensive remediation was undertaken, including a roof replacement, brickwork, and rebuilding the demolished rear section. The historic home is now being sold.
In that particular instance, the house’s ownership was clear. Often, that is not the case with many abandoned or neglected properties. “A lot of abandoned properties are the result of neglecting to transfer the title when the owner dies,” said McIlhinney, whose firm Orphanides & Toner have pursued dozens of conservatorships. “In Philadelphia, to untangle the title, you have to start with the most recently deceased individual and then work your way back, ultimately to the owner of record.”
Estate attorney Scott Donahue sees the challenges a conservatorship faces if the current ownership is not clear. “A lot of times I’m tasked with finding the heirs,” he explained, recalling one example of a South Philadelphia property where the owner of record had died in the 1950s. “After that, children, then grandchildren, continued to live in the house. We had to track down estates across the country, from the seven or eight children and their descendants, to lead us to the estate of the original owner to be probated,” Donahue said.
Sometimes, just the looming threat of an Act 135 conservatorship can move an absentee owner to make repairs. “I’ve sued developers who owned several abandoned properties, and as soon as I file, they contact me and say, I’ll take action,” said McIlhinney.
It can also lead to a sale to a new owner who will act. In 2007, Donahue purchased a shell on the 2300 block of St. Alban’s Street in Graduate Hospital, which had been vacant for around 30 years. After first attempting an Act 135 conservatorship, he went on to negotiate a sale with the owner and terminated the conservatorship proceedings.
A more recent example is the Willow Street Steam Generation Plant in Callowhill. It had been the subject of an Act 135 petition by Scioli Turco Inc. Principals Joel Palmer and Jeff Goldman have completed a number of successful conservatorships in the region. That 2016 action prompted the plant’s owner to sell the building, the new owner to contest the conservatorship, and subsequently receive a construction permit to convert it to mixed use residential and commercial. “Even though it didn’t go through the whole conservatorship process, the specter of it prompted the owner to start remediation,” said Steinke.
Not every attempt at a court-ordered conservatorship is successful. The Levine Funeral Home on North Broad Street was a striking Art Deco landmark from the 1930s. A portion of the building had been fire damaged, and the entire building was demolished in 2021 after the Department of Licenses and Inspections deemed it unsafe. “We tried twice to establish a conservatorship,” said McIlhinney ruefully. “The judge’s interpretation was that the act isn’t for historic preservation.”
Although he is always solidly on the side of preservation, Steinke admitted, “The law was successful in a technical sense because it’s intended to eliminate blight and in this case, the demolition did that.” He went on to point out another loss that same year, the Spring Garden Station in Callowhill. As a conservatorship petition was being filed by Scioli Turco and the real estate firm Arts + Crafts, the owner, Reading International, secured a demolition permit from the City. “Under the law, if the owner lifts a finger to do anything, the case can’t proceed,” Steinke explained.
Sometimes, Act 135 is not just for buildings. McIlhinney and company are currently involved in the conservatorship of Mount Vernon Cemetery at Ridge and West Lehigh Avenues, which is just across the street from the well-preserved and well-known Laurel Hill Cemetery. By contrast, Mount Vernon Cemetery is is a for-profit company. Its owner resides in the Washington D.C. area and has not been present for years. “It’s an interesting use of the Act,” McIlhinney said. “Neighbors were concerned about its condition and preserving it.”
John Notman, the architect of neighboring Laurel Hill Cemetery’s Italianate gatehouse, also designed Mount Vernon’s gatehouse, which was completed in 1858. “We tried to clean out and stabilize it. It’s now in a shell condition with plans mapped out for its rehabilitation,” said McIlhinney.
“The court doesn’t want us to spend another $200,000, so the issue is how to exit a conservatorship in the case of a cemetery. Is there a market for a cemetery? Possibly yes if there remains enough grounds for future burials. So, we’re asking the court to put it up for sale and see what happens,” he explained.
A group of preservationists and community organizers have formed the non-profit Mt. Vernon Cemetery Conservation Company, aiming to take ownership and preserve the cemetery. With an assessed value of $10,655,900, that would be a daunting task for any property. “Raising funds is challenging because it’s a historic cemetery, a hard asset to raise money for. We have tons of neglected cemeteries in the Philadelphia area,” noted Thaddeus Squire of Social Impact Commons (and founder of CultureWorks, Hidden City’s parent nonprofit), which is providing management support for the group. “We’re positioning it as a green space. A big chunk of it was never sold and could be reopened for alternative burials, or used as community gardens or public space. Because philanthropically, there’s not an interest in preserving historic cemeteries,” explained Squire. “I think it could be a great resource, but it had to be reimagined.”
Act 135 is not without its detractors, often surrounding the slow pace at which cases are resolved. McIlhinney’s colleague Paul Toner counters that the lengthy process is owing to important safeguards. “One of the beauties of the Act is that there is no possibility of conservators abusing the relationship,” he explained. “Every step of the way a judge is looking out, making sure neighbors and anyone who has standing is kept aware of the process. Some would like to see the process move faster, but it’s a great balance of constant judicial oversight.”
Still, some would like to see some improvements to the law. “Eliminate the loophole to allow demolition to cure the problem,” recommended Steinke. “Recalibrate the process so that remediation and reuse is the primary option.”
Overall, the parties involved–neighbor groups, attorneys, preservationists and others–see Act 135 as a successful tool. “The City has its hands tied, between a narrow legal remedy and lack of resources to address all the blighted properties,” said Toner. “With a conservatorship, everything gets done at zero cost to the taxpayers and the neighbors.”
Donohue agreed. “With Act 135, we finally have a tool that enables the court to hold an owner accountable.”