When renting an apartment or house in West Philadelphia, there are some questions you ought to consider. There’s the classic “How close is it to campus?” and “What are the local amenities like?” and “Do I have to pay utilities?” Since we have an urban campus, you also have to ask “Is the neighborhood safe? What’s it like after 11 p.m.?”
Increasingly, though, you should be asking another question: “Will it fall over before my lease is up?”
A week ago, an enormous crack appeared in the wall of my living room. It stretches from the floor to the ceiling on a corner that used to house a chimney, but now houses a poorly-implemented forced-air duct. The wall is, of course, load-bearing.
It’s not that surprising, since my apartment building (built around1860) is older than the modern state of Italy (unified in 1861). When it was built, Abraham Lincoln had yet to take office, “On the Origin of the Species” was hot off the presses, and there were people still alive who had been subjects of the Holy Roman Emperor. It was converted into apartments sometime in the early 20th century, and the apartments were most recently renovated sometime in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. Many students, I’m sure, live in similar buildings.
Even some of our larger apartment buildings are ancient. University Crossings was built in 1927 as the headquarters of the Pennsylvania Railroad and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Chestnut Hall on 39th Street was built as the Pennsylvania Hotel in 1922, and The Axis is even older. As large-ticket items, they are well maintained and frequently inspected, and, in the case of The Axis, have even had all traces of their age obliterated. When it comes to row houses, though, decades of neglect can go by before anyone notices or cares.
There are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of row houses in University City and surrounding areas. Not all of them are old or decrepit. Some are owned by conscientious landlords who renovate their properties frequently. Many, however, are not. Especially in the student slums north of Spring Garden Street, but really all over West Philadelphia, we see evidence of neglect. Crooked porch roofs, long cracks in load-bearing brick walls, the occasional sagging deck (probably built without permits); they’re all there. Frequently, you’ll see a lone row house standing between vacant lots, a thing that it was never designed to do. Most of these houses are renting for upwards of $3,000 a month, to boot!
These issues, in and of themselves, aren’t terrible. What is terrible is when one of them just decides to up and fall over one day. It’s happened before, often as a result of poor excavation practices in adjacent properties, but sometimes just out of the blue.
Building collapses are frequent enough now that they hardly make the news. A house was damaged by falling construction on Hamilton Street recently, and there was hardly any news coverage. In Strawberry Mansion, a house collapsed a few weeks ago, and made the local news for a day or two. Further collapses have happened in Ogontz and the rest of North Philadelphia within the past two months. Those houses were considerably newer than a lot of West Philadelphia’s housing stock, and one day their residents came home and found a pile of rubble where their house once was.
Licenses and Inspections is supposed to take care of figuring out which buildings are fit for habitation and which ones are masonry death traps, but there’s simply too many properties out there for them to inspect, and many that require more urgent intervention in other areas of the city. Meanwhile, Drexel has been buying up properties left and right through its real estate arm, New Age Realty, sprucing them up a bit, and renting them to students for exorbitant rates. Campus Apartments operates similarly. These are great to live in, if you can afford it.
For the rest of us, there’s the small-time landlords who may or may not have inspected their property in this century. The house could be a deathtrap, but hey, rent is cheap!
The fact is, West Philadelphia is getting old, and it’s starting to show. Nineteenth century row houses don’t have the same modern amenities as new construction. (They will, however, likely outlast modern stick-framed engineered-wood houses with false brick facing which will all fall over in exactly 50 years because that is when life-cycle analysis says that it’s the most economical for them to do so.)
I would not, however, suggest a wholesale teardown and reconstruction of West Philadelphia. Row houses in Powelton Village, in Spruce Hill, yes, even in deepest darkest Mantua, are part of the city’s character. Low-rent row houses are what make Philadelphia unique, because where else can a bunch of college kids with very little means get a whole house to themselves? People who want modern living can go live in Chestnut Square and pay for it. I’d rather have house shows.
L&I has been unable to solve the crisis. Drexel cannot either, unless it buys all of Powelton Village and Mantua. However, there are some simple things you can do to avoid living in a house that’s going to fall over. Ask your landlord about how old it is, and don’t settle for weasel words like “early 20th century.” Look at the walls for cracks, inside and out, and especially in the basement. And make sure you know your rights as a renter. Solving the widespread maintenance crisis is beyond anyone right now, but at least you can protect yourself if you remain informed.
Justin Roczniak is the op-ed editor of The Triangle. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.