By: Sean M. Guay
Harrisburg, PA – The sinkhole disaster block of S. 14th Street in South Harrisburg was called the original ‘war zone‘ in 2014, years before now President Trump‘s visit to the city, which he described using those exact words that upset the citizens of this community in 2016. After a politically motivated article was recently released, the 1400 block is losing hope in depending on assistance from the Federal Government to buyout some of the homes. A cloud of fear has been cast by local leaders who cite the Trump administration’s proposed $6 Billion in program cuts to HUD. The city is now jockeying its position with the Federal Government over the time frame to complete the project phases, as they seek an extension to the May 31 deadline. In this scenario, where the Mayor has his personal vision to champion the cause and to construct the newly designed green space, it is the struggling residents who continue to suffer greatly.
Had the city been proactive, the people of S. 14th Street would have been paid 6 months ago, before the change of federal administration. What makes it very much upsetting, is that this post-disaster crisis was due to the lack of initiative by the City of Harrisburg. The city government has a duty to serve the citizens, and a proactive city government would have recognized the potential threat looming from the new administration, and focused on getting its people help first, then follow through with the visionary plan. Now, the aftermath of this disaster has gone too far, when the city should have made arrangements long ago to ensure that the citizens of S. 14th Street were protected, but instead has been dragging out this affair. Good citizens and folks with a family legacy in Harrisburg are losing their inheritance in this bad deal. This is an example of poor crisis management by the Papenfuse Administration.
Labeled as an anti-gentrification initiative, the mayor abruptly held meetings aimed at rallying support from local African-American leaders under the premise that he intended to do right by them. When will that happen? Because thus far it has been compared to a politically motivated step towards building up the image of Mayor Papenfuse as a champion for the people. This move would be in line with the modus operandi of our Mayor, who recently pulled a similarly lame political maneuver in his Fox43 TV Interview on Monday. It has been well documented by Tim Rowbottow that Mayor Papenfuse was aware of the problems at Rowland Elementary since February, but he didn’t make a comment on the situation until the public outrage developed. Suddenly Papenfuse is appalled and insisting on a fix to a problem that he didn’t care about last week.
In the case of the Sinkhole buyout, it certainly appears that the city has politicized and created an atmosphere of fear regarding these these payments. Who will save these unfortunate neighbors? In particular, it could be that the Mayor wants to accept the credit of any future success to come from this buyout as momentum towards his bid in the upcoming primary election. When the timing is just right, and through carefully selected channels, Papenfuse will issue an update on the payouts, essentially proclaiming himself the hero of S. 14th Street.
Why was the City and County so eager to move forward with tax sale of Ms. Taylor’s property? The City of Harrisburg could have stopped the sale by courting Dauphin County and requesting a “stay” of the collection of taxes. This inaction of the city created a situation where Ms. Taylor became the victim of “sale under duress,” because she did not want the sale to happen, but unfortunately she was leveraged by undue influence.
No public meetings have occurred for months and some of these forgotten senior citizens are struggling. They cannot even get a hint of help from the Dauphin County Commissioners. There were many good folks who owned homes here, and some who are still on the block to this day, including an 86 year old man who doesn’t have a plan for what to do with himself. It is sad that so many of these senior citizens have been overlooked and forgotten about in an isolated section at the southern extent of Harrisburg. There are many other stories. Today we will focus on Ms. Della Taylor who owned a property at the end of the block, part of phase two of the project, which relies on the $3 Million that is coming from the Federal Government.
For several decades, Ms. Taylor owned a house within the 14th Street sinkhole area. While she lived in a home in Highspire, at one time she supplemented her income by renting the 14th St. property. But following the national financial crisis, and due to further personal struggles, Ms. Taylor had to adjust her life to these new realities. Eventually, she reached a point where she just didn’t have the money anymore, and found herself slightly behind on taxes for the property that she owned on S. 14th Street in Harrisburg.
“The Mayor didn’t handle the situation properly.” Ms. Della Taylor
At this time in 2014, the family who lived at the property had terrific grandchildren who loved to play outdoors on nice days. Unfortunately, things changed and they could no longer enjoy themselves outside, because their grandparents had to fear for their safety after this block became ravaged with the ground opening up to 100’s of sinkholes. A neighbor’s child had a very close call in an encounter with a hole and could have been seriously hurt. These landmines that riddled the area gave the appearance of a true war zone. The problem got worse and at one point the sinking ground caused a terrible water main break. Eventually, the street collapsed, some residents were stuck in their homes, some suffered structural damage and many homes have since been condemned. Some of the homes have doors that can no longer be opened. Can you imagine that the ground where you live, play, eat and sleep could just sink underground and your space would no longer exist?
The situation went from bad to worse on S. 14th Street, and with no hope in sight, the tenants of Ms. Taylor’s property stopped paying rent and eventually moved out. She was unable to find new renters under such conditions since the entire block had become uninhabitable. With no money coming in, the taxes went unpaid.
Why was Ms. Della Taylor’s property not condemned by the City of Harrisburg?
With such dreadful conditions on this street, it is hard to hold these folks accountable for the heavy property tax burden. It has since been decided that properties on this block will be considered county tax exempt for the years of 2014-2017. As it turns out, during her financial struggles, Ms. Taylor did get behind on her tax payments sometime in 2012-2013, and that lead to her property being put up for tax auction, but that sale happened 2 years after the sinkhole disaster. Although it hardly would seem fair, or in the interests of the city, to put such a burden on a property owner in a heavily struggling section. Especially with the assumed pending buyout settlement. The house was in tax arrears before the sinkhole, but once the event occurred all legal action should have ceased, according to the opinion of at least one legal counsel sought by Ms. Taylor.
Considering the status of S. 14th Street, and under such uninhabitable conditions, why was Ms. Della Taylor’s property not condemned by the City of Harrisburg? Over 20+ homes were condemned and it was fully understood that these residents would be qualifying for a buyout. It was assumed that before her home was sold, there would be assistance likely to come from the federal government. In fact, the way Ms. Taylor described it, she spoke directly with Mayor Eric Papenfuse, and Jackie Parker (head of Harrisburg Dept. of Economic Development) prior to the county tax sale of her home being finalized. According to Ms. Taylor, he took down her name and telephone number, and Mayor Papenfuse gave his word that he would include her property on a list of homes on the block of S. 14th Street not to be sold, due to the owners being in limbo on the uninhabitable street. The mayor probably has a different recollection of the meeting, but has not provided a comment, and there no word yet on this from Joyce Davis, his Director of Public Relations. It is believed that this matter could have been squashed as far back as May 2016 for Ms. Taylor, but the due diligence was not done by the city to protect her. Why was she and other citizens of S. 14th St. placed at a lower level of priority?
When the Sheriff showed up at her home with paperwork that had to be signed by Ms. Taylor, who by the way is a 71 year old woman, she felt very threatened by his large presence and certainly felt obligated to comply with the officer’s request to provide her signature. But the truth is that she didn’t know what she was signing at the time, and Ms. Taylor has admitted that at the time she “felt intimidated” by the Sheriff at her door. Her nerves were shook after the declining series of events over the past few years, especially because of the sinkhole problems that were followed up by a tax lien on her property. It had been just one bad thing after another for Ms. Della Taylor. All she knew was that she didn’t have the money to pay for the outstanding taxes and was put under the impression that she had no other choice. This was an undue influence as she had no support and couldn’t afford legal council at the time. Her property was sold at a tax sale in September of 2016.
It is most unfortunate that Ms. Taylor was not represented by the city, who should have requested that the collections be “stayed” to stop the requirement that the taxes be paid, therefore avoiding tax sale. An investor purchased her property for an amount of nearly $5,500. That is a small fraction of the assessed property value that would be paid to the property owner as a result of the buyout settlement. Many of the homes have been assessed around $50,000. As of now, Ms. Taylor stands to earn none of that settlement money. And the city let this process go through. The new name listed as owner of the property comes up under R & K Realty Group @ 7871 Manada Court, Harrisburg PA, and is listed as General Partner to A & D Realty, both created in August 2015 at the same address.
Ms. Taylor cannot afford legal council, but spoke with Attorney Susan Confair, who believes that this investor will not gain from the settlement payout, but only stands to get back their initial investment. And due to highly questionable actions on the part of the city and county which lead to the post-disaster sale of her property, Ms. Taylor stands to lose the decades-long investment she placed in her home.
Another wildcard in this deal is the potential for the city to gain from the buyout of that property, should they receive the money that is rightfully due to Ms. Taylor. The value of that home was included when the city negotiated the deal as it currently exists with the federal government. If Ms Taylor and the new owner are not eligible to receive that buyout money, it would theoretically end up in the account of the city.
Ms. Taylor spoke with every familiar name and face in and around Harrisburg, but all to no end. She spoke with Mayor Papenfuse, Jackie Parker (Director of Community & Economic Development), Commissioner George Hardwick, George Conners (Deputy Director of Community & Economic Development), State Rep Patty Kim, Ruth from housing, and the list goes on. Everybody seems to have their hands tied and lips sealed in this matter. She has made endless contacts, personal meetings and phones calls to every office related to the state and city and some attorneys regarding this matter, and somehow at every path she hit a dead-end. Just like the dead-end that has become of the once bustling residential street.
There are many other stories from the residents and owners of S. 14th Street. There may be other properties, including one whose owner is deceased, that may have suspiciously sold after the disaster in March of 2014. It is possible that the deceased owner’s kin inherited the property and sold it. At any rate, none of those properties should have been able to be sold after the condemnations.
This is not a success story for the Mayor of Harrisburg to hang his hat upon, however it is just the opposite because we have good reason to reconsider the leader of our fair city in the upcoming primary election.
Mayor Papenfuse has many excuses why the S. 14th St. property owners are still in limbo. He could’ve courted Dauphin County and taken a stand against the county, similarly to the way he so desperately fought the commissions on the Civil War Museum, to no end. Perhaps he surrendered in defeat to the county, thus another point proving his incompetence as leader of Harrisburg. The fact remains that the citizens, many of modest means, are now in the unfortunate position of counting on the Trump administration to deliver on his infrastructure promises and help the people in our “war zone”. Regardless, due to bureaucratic incompetence, lack of due diligence, and just plain not caring about the plight of a vulnerable senior citizen, Ms. Taylor has lost her home and became a victim of circumstances – twice. First, when the sinkholes opened making her property unrentable, and second, when the improper tax sale of duress took away her property and any chance of compensation for the loss.
We will be following up on this and the stories of other residents of S. 14th Street in our future publications.