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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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Debbie Thomas July 13, 2012 at 12:25 PM
I agree with Mr. Gramlich. It would be a shame to rent that beautiful home out to college students. It deserves to be occupied by someone who will appreciate it.
Cha July 13, 2012 at 12:28 PM
Yeah, I'm totally sure it's rental properties that are "ruining" our town. I like how the person in the beginning of the article says that making houses single family units will make it a "nice block". Not keeping up your yard isn't the worst thing a tenant can do.
JS56 July 13, 2012 at 02:16 PM
It's not always college students who seek out shared housing rentals. It’s also folks who have limited income. I know of household that are run as cooperatives, shared by a group of women, or young professionals. I feel that one of the bigger issues is the need for responsible renters and responsible landlords. Developing and maintaining relationships with colleges for off campus housing for students can help to ensure appropriate student behavior.
Sumac Street July 13, 2012 at 02:27 PM
Wissahickon is at a tipping point. If it is to remain a desirable, family-friendly neighborhood, the issues of absentee landlords, single-family home conversions, and any number of "quality of life" concerns (property maintenance, student behavior, etc...) must be addressed head-on. Thanks to Chip Roller, WICA, and Councilman Jones for fighting this important battle.
Linda July 13, 2012 at 03:26 PM
my parents were the ones to convert to apt in 1948, we lived on the first and 2nd floors and rented out the 3rd floor. We were there until 1966; I loved that house with fire place, hard wood floors, pocket doors and high ceilings... Can't image college students living there!! we rented to older single women. it was a terrific block to grow up!
Roxborough Area Man July 13, 2012 at 03:29 PM
Whatever happened to property rights? I am a homeowner in the area, and while I also am distressed when a beautiful single-family house is carved up into apartments, I am also distressed when a property owner's rights are held hostage to sentimentality, and quite frankly, economic discrimination. Apartment dwellers are not second-class citizens - that waiter at the restaurant on Main Street, your local bartender, the cashier at Acme, they ALL need somewhere to live. Yes, some apartment dwellers do not add to the quality of life of a neighborhood - but the same can be said for home owners. I live next to a house that is in disrepair, with a lawn that is mismanaged to the point of resembling something along the trails along the Wissahickon Creek. That house is owner-occupied, and is a dump compared to the rental property next door. Don't fear renters - and don't abrogate your future property rights to salve your fears of a rental nation. The answer, in a free market economy that values property rights? Gather enough people to BUY THE PROPERTY AND DO WITH IT WHAT YOU WANT. Otherwise, let the property owner do what they will. As long as it meets code, you have NO RIGHT to dictate what this property owner will and can do.
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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