Walk into Aaron Perlstein’s backyard in South Philadelphia and you’ll be greeted by lush greenery, that is providing shade from the summer sun. However, that shade is rooted in a seemingly dangerous situation – thanks to a tree growing out of the second story of his neighbor’s brick wall.
“It seems it has doubled in size. That thing is massive. It must have found a new water source or something,” Perlstein said of the tree.
The sapling, which is suspended in the air, juts out just below a second floor window on the rear of a three story house at 919 S. 17th Street. As it has grown, the tree has caused the window to buckle and brick to separate from the wall below.
“It’s a little concerning now that you can see the brick and wall come loose and it doesn’t look safe,” said Perlstein, who has lived around the corner on the 1600 block of Montrose Street for six years. He says several squirrels regularly make their way in and out of the house through the window.
A large amount of ivy covers the building’s back wall, in addition to the sprouting tree. On the front, there are two broken windows and construction equipment can be seen inside the home through a first floor window.
“I don’t know who the owner of the property is or else I’d try and contact them directly,” Perlstein said. He adds he’s never seen anyone in the home since he’s lived in his house.
City tax records list the property owner as Michael S. Jackson. Philadelphia Common Pleas court filings show several actions involving Jackson and the company Lu Rube Developers at that address.
Court records show the home at 919 S. 17th Street was foreclosed upon and put up for sheriff’s sale in September 2008. But months later, the house was spared and the listing set aside after Jackson entered a loan modification. Lu Rube Developers also lists its address at this location.
The Internal Revenue Service filed a lien against Lu Rube Developers at an adjacent apartment at 913 S. 17th Street. The IRS says Lu Rube owes more than $6,700 in taxes.
Rebecca Swanson, spokeswoman with the Department of Licenses & Inspections, said the city also has a long history with both Jackson and Lu Rube Developers. Swanson described Jackson as a “notorious” housing owner.
A property Jackson owned across the street at 914 S. 17th Street was demolished by the city, according to Sawnson. Another property, up the block at 1700 Christian Street, was cited by L&I for having boarded up windows and doors.
Swanson says a city ordinance requires properties have actual windows and doors installed. Owners cited under this ordinance face a $300 a day fine. Court records show the city took Lu Rube to court and that they eventually complied with the law.
Not knowing who owned the property and afraid the wall may come down, Perlstein filed a complaint with the city’s 311 citizen call center on June 15. Twelve days later, an L&I inspector went to the address Perlstein provided, but unfortunately it was the wrong address. The city’s required response time for such issues is 30 days, according to Swanson.
Perlstein was able to talk with the L&I inspector who, Swanson said, planned to go out to the property sometime this week to inspect the correct property.
“I’d like to see the tree removed and somebody come out here to make sure the building is stable and that I’m not in any risk of bricks falling down or building collapsing,” Perlstein said.
After our inquiry about the property on Monday, the inspector was dispatched within hours to the correct address. Swanson said the inspector, who works in the department’s housing unit, found several violations at the S. 17th Street property. According to Swanson, L&I plans to issue several citations including the violation of the window and door ordinance.
L&I has also deemed the property to be vacant, which requires a license by the homeowner. Swanson says vacant houses and businesses need to be registered with the city each year. That registration carries a $150 fee.
The L&I inspector is also passing on the case to the department’s Contractual Services Unit, which focuses on inspecting the structural integrity of buildings in the city, according to Swanson. That inspector is expected to take a look at the property within a week, and if warranted, will open a case.
“He himself cannot make a determination whether the building is structurally deficient,” Swanson said. She adds that the department is “glad” to get the address discrepancy fixed and stressed the importance of providing the correct address to city officials.
NBC10.com was eventually able to speak to Jackson regarding the properties. Jackson said he knew about the tree, but was not aware of "how serious" the situation had become.
“I’m going to have somebody take a look at it and cut down the tree,” he said.
Jackson said while he owns the property, he does not live in the home. He also says Lu Rube Developers is allowed to use the house -- which they do, sparingly.
Responding to questions regarding the other properties, Jackson says he does not own any others. He also says a title error involving the transfer of deeds has mistakenly roped him into issues involving legal proceedings.
"I was operating since 2008 [on the belief] that all of the properties were transferred to Lu Rube," he said. "I was not made aware until the city made me aware in 2011."
Jackson said he was at one time part of Lu Rube Developers, but divested his share of the company in 2008.
He says Lu Rube used a title company that he believes has since gone out of business to transfer three properties to him and that those properties were never properly transferred back to Lu Rube.
Jackson says he is working to correct the errors with the city. Jackson would not provide contact information for Lu Rube Developers, but said he would reach out to the owners on our behalf.
As for Perlstein, he says ultimately, all that matters is that the building is deemed safe – even if that means a vacant lot must take its place.
“If it needs to be demolished, I’d like to see it demolished. If it can be fixed, that would be great. There are lots of developers in this area that would love to have a three-story building and redo it. I would like to see something done with it.”