No More Rentals—Civic Fights to Keep Single-Family Homes

WICA challenges Rochelle Avenue property before zoning board.

As rental properties become more of the norm, one area civic association attempts to dig in its heels and preserve as many single-family homes as possible.

The Wissahickon Interested Citizens Association will try to convince the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment July 18 that 102 Rochelle Ave. should remain a single-family home and reject the continued influx of transient renters.

"Rochelle Avenue has incredible potential... and it can't be lost. There are people moving in here with kids and families," WICA Vice President Chip Roller said. "Our goal is to make it a single-family home, and make it a nice block."

However, property owners from the estate of Edwin Lasota already earned approval from the Department of Licenses and Inspections—WICA needs the ZBA to overturn its decision.

Where Wissahickon Stands

The story for 102 Rochelle Ave., a stately Victorian, is similar to other cases throughout Roxborough, Manayunk and Wissahickon. A long-time property owner who lived on-site dies, and his or her heirs attempt to sell or rent out the property.

In 2011, with the help of a pro bono lawyer recruited by , WICA successfully appealed to keep 226 Sumac St., another Victorian, a single-family home instead of a duplex.

"We were able to keep it that way, and a woman bought it like we wanted—a fixer-upper with an amazing wrap-around porch. Someday, she'll have a palace," Roller said.

On Rochelle, Lasota's estate received a rental license from L & I for a three-family dwelling.

Whether L & I made the correct decision is what's to be determined.

Councilman Appeals to L & I

This case isn't as cut-and-dry as the Sumac home. According to the Office of Councilman Jones, the Rochelle property received a variance in 1948 to become a three-family dwelling, which it maintained by applying for a housing license from 1992 to 2006.

Because there was a recent six-year-lapse, Jones and the civic argued that L & I could reject the use. In a March 8 letter to then-Commissioner Frances Burns, Jones said the property was up for sale in a way detrimental to the neighborhood.

"It is now being marketed as a three-family dwelling with the hopes of attracting college kids similar to other properties in the neighborhood. In order to attract buyers, the real estate firm is marketing it as a 'cash cow,'" he said.

Deputy L & I Commissioner Michael Fink responded to Jones March 19, saying that the lapse in paying a fee didn't justify revoking a variance. Additionally, he said the property owner paid all back fees after becoming aware of the lapse in payment.

What Fink did allow, though, was the civic a chance to officially contest the decision, which sets the stage for the hearing July 18.

Ultimately, as Jones wrote to Burns, this issue is indicative of the neighborhood's plight.

"Stable neighborhoods like Wissahickon are being decimated by these multiple-family, party homes. My office is making a concerted effort to explore other reasonable solutions to alleviate this problem," he said.

The Neighbors' Take

At 102 Rochelle Ave. Thursday, a construction crew worked on renovating the property. No owners were available to talk, one worker said.

Hal Rosner lives on Rochelle Avenue and can point out the derelict homes from the stable, owner-occupied ones. 

"There's like eight units, and, well, it's pretty easy to tell what's wrong," he said, indicating one home with overgrown grass and inattention to property maintenance.

He said he supports WICA's "aggressive" attitude and said absentee landlords are a real problem here. At one meeting, he said, he heard a developer describe rental homes as "virtual ATMS" for property owners, like Jones' "cash cow" reference.

Carl Gramlich was walking his dog on the hot summer day. When he heard the Lasota property may become rentals, he was surprised.

"It's upsetting. Putting college kids in a house like that would be shame," he said, adding he worked for Temple University, so he understood the problem of student housing.

A 20-year resident on Kalos Street, Gramlich said, "I've witness the change for some of these houses. It's sad."

Roller's perspective is to vigorously pursue prospective rental properties to the best of WICA's abilities.

"We have resolved to reverse the rentals, if at all possible. We'll oppose any attempt to downgrade our neighborhood any more," he said.

The July 18 hearing begins at 2 p.m.


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Roxborough Area Man July 13, 2012 at 03:51 PM
On a more practical note, after looking at the house on Realtor.com, I've come to some conclusions: 1. The property is 2700ish feet - much, much too large a house for the neighborhood and the average family today. 2. AVI initiative coming anyone? This house could be a taxpayer black hole. 3. The lot is VERY small, especially when one considers this house is appropriate for a LARGE family. 4. Big house, 100 years old...maintenance would be an ongoing nightmare. 5. Big family, appropriate to the house? The public schools are horrific - Catholic schools a mess - Private schools expensive. 6. Sale price $243,000 - good deal, but awfully inexpensive for a house that, from the road, shows quite well. Something seems amiss.
hughesical July 13, 2012 at 04:40 PM
As a renter in the Wissashickon neighborhood, I find this debate one-sided and limited in scope. My boyfriend and I are 25 and both working local entry-level jobs. We are quiet and respectful and do our best to keep up the property we are renting in spite of our absentee landlord. We have received no complaints from our neighbors. I have also had minimal problems with noise, etc, from the other renters in neighboring buildings. Not all renters are problematic--many are people who are starting off in life and want to live in a quiet, safe neighborhood. In the case of college-age renters, since when are all college students disrespectful and loud? I know of plenty who make fine neighbors (and local baby-sitters!). Granted, not all renters are perfect neighbors, but as the commenter above me stated, neither are all homeowners.
JS56 July 13, 2012 at 04:51 PM
Please re-read the responses. There is much support for responsible: renters, landlords, and homeowners.
Debbie Thomas July 13, 2012 at 07:12 PM
I need to clarify a comment I posted previously. I should have said "some college students" wouldn't appreciate a house like that. For the most part I'm not a fan of large Victorian type homes being divided into apartments no matter who the renters are. However, I would rather see them converted into rentals than deteriorate to the point of demolishing. I would also be nice if the landlords would keep up the maintenance on many of the older homes they rent out in Roxborough/Manayunk. I see the larger homes in Lyceum close to the Ridge that are sorely in need of a thorough paint job and they starting to look shabby. It would be a shame not to keep these homes maintained.
JOAN WHITE July 13, 2012 at 10:47 PM
Wow. As much as I would love a home in the neighborhood that is big and beautiful and well kept with sprawling porches, I do agree with this Roxborough Man. One has to let the economy dictate what will happen. If no one could afford to buy and rennovate a big home in that neighborhood because of schools and whatever, , it could be left vfacant. That could be an even bigger problem. Did you know, that if a house in a neighborhood is boarded up, that others on the street could have difficulty getting home owners insurance. I too am sentimental about the older homes, but I too, do not believe we have the right to dictate to the home owner. Joan White


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