Inside the Philadelphia DA’s side hustle — selling seized homes to speculators and cops

Among the handful of properties transferred to community groups, there were a few notable successes. One of these was on Allegheny Avenue, where, in 2007, the DA deeded a forfeited rowhouse adjacent to the Cornerstone Community Church to church leaders. Abraham even accepted a symbolic jar containing 100 pennies from the leaders of the congregation, representing the $1 sale price the DA had asked for the seized home.

The story of this home would become an exemplar of how the DA wanted its forfeiture program to work — Grossman even mentioned the Cornerstone property during her 2016 campaign for DA. Today, the church still owns the house and maintains it well —  a blight turned into an asset.

But records show that transactions for nonprofit purposes were about as much of an outlier as sales to police officers. A review of deed records identified just 20 properties that appear to have been deeded to churches or community groups.

Not all these sales ended happily. In 2000, two forfeited properties on the 700 block of Russell Street in Kensington were given to Centro Pedro Claver, a neighborhood nonprofit. The group planned to redevelop the properties into affordable housing, but fell onto hard times and ultimately sold the properties without improving them. Years later, the houses have changed hands several more times. Today, they are finally occupied but the nonprofit itself no longer exists.

Former DA officials said the program that sent properties to these groups ended in 2009 for unclear reasons. Grossman said the DA did not keep track of what became of the few properties that were transferred to these groups.

“I couldn’t tell you,” Grossman said. “I certainly hope good things.”

Quiñones-Sánchez, who got her start at one such neighborhood organization before joining Council in 2008, says that there never was a plan for what to do with the hundreds of properties churned into new ownership. There are no records of a comprehensive strategy or even records indicating that the DA’s office consulted with city planning, community development or land use agencies when they decided which areas to target for seizures or how to find buyers or community organizations to take over the properties.

Maria Gonzalez, President of HACE – one of the largest community development corporations in the Kensington area – said the DA never reached out to established groups like hers.

“I am familiar with the civil asset forfeiture process,” she said. “I have never heard of any steering from the previous DA to groups in HACE’s neighborhoods.”

Lacking collaboration with land use or development agencies and without a plan for how to put the properties back to use, the DA struggled to avoid simply turning homes back over to the open market, where slumlords, speculators or parties with a conflict of interest could easily snap them up. Even the nonprofits were not immune from conflicts.

Centro Pedro Claver was originally known as the “Centro Pedro Claver Anti-Drug Task Force” and consisted of neighborhood drug crusaders who sometimes worked with the District Attorney’s Office to identify alleged drug houses for narcotics raids.

The group’s stated mission was to shut down drug houses and transform properties into badly needed affordable housing for Kensington’s growing Puerto Rican community. But some neighbors questioned their methods, the homes they selected and who eventually benefitted from the seizures.

“Over time, you heard some stuff about individual people crossing the line. They would say ‘Oh, we got a property for someone or other,’ ” Sanchez said. “There would be questions about how [they] had got the properties. They went a little rogue.”

A decade later, the DA took back one of the two properties it had deeded over to this nonprofit all over again as drug activity returned.

Other forfeited properties deeded to nonprofits, selected more for their relationship with the DA than redevelopment experience, fell back into disuse. Without any rules requiring buyers to show evidence of reinvestment like the regulations imposed by other public agencies selling land, communities promised a new and better neighbor found themselves again confronting blight.

One example can be found in West Philadelphia where the DA deeded a property to West Powelton Against Drugs for a nominal sum. Today, it is a vacant lot, maintained by the city. A different property, turned over to a church called the Gate to Heaven Ministry, was recently cited for being structurally unsafe. Another property on Palethorp Street, transferred to the Norris Square Neighborhood Project, was resold to another buyer and today is vacant.

Molly Tack-Hooper, a lawyer at the Pennsylvania ACLU, sees these programs as thin justification for law enforcement taking the extraordinary step of seizing possession of a property involved in a suspected crime.

“The ordinance or state law already allows for the temporary sealing of a nuisance property. If you want to punish criminals by taking proceeds you should do that in the criminal process,” she said. “When government seizes property, we’ve seen that they still sit empty or are forfeited multiple times. I don’t know how to solve poverty or drug crime or low property value, but transferring ownership to the government doesn’t solve any of those problems on its own.”