Philadelphia Aerial
Mark Henninger

Philly developers are startled: Is L&I not a joke anymore?

“This isn’t ‘Bar Rescue.'” says L&I Commissioner David Perri. “The reform in this department is going to take some time.”

Philadelphia’s embattled Department of Licenses and Inspections is turning heads by showing a previously unseen look: Competence.

“There was an overnight shift,” says one local developer. “It’s night and day from where we were before,” proclaims another. “The lines of communication are now much clearer,” the leader of a prominent neighborhood association affirms.

L&I has borne the reputation as one of the most reviled municipal departments in the country. In 2014, the U.S. Attorney’s Office indicted the deputy commissioner on fraud and extortion charges, and last year the FBI was reportedly investigating the department for rampant bribery among inspectors. The Philadelphia Inquirer published a series of investigations that called into question almost every facet of the department’s duties, detailing transgressions from illegal demolitions to fabricated inspection records — and this was after L&I paid Philly.com $15,000 to run three advertorials puffing up its image.

But seven months into the tenure of Commissioner David Perri, the former Streets Commissioner who Mayor Kenney tapped to helm the much-maligned department, rumblings from all sides of the building and development community suggest things are on the mend.

“I’m not suggesting we should wave a victory flag and say everything is fixed,” says developer Ori Feibush of OCF Realty. “Some things, like staffing issues, can take years to resolve. But across the board, this is a huge win for the city.”

“The department is actually functioning now,” says John Longacre of LPMG Properties, a development company that concentrates on revitalization. “They’re actually responding to permits, closing out files. Inspectors in the field are making common-sense decisions.”

Perri is flattered by the praise, though insists his focus is not “trying to make developers happy” but “to shift the focus back to life safety.”

He also maintains there’s lots of work to be done.

‘It trickles down’

Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, speaks highly of Perri’s personal character.

“I found that the Streets Department became much easier to deal with when Perri became commissioner there,” Ruben says. “He excels at being accessible and getting things done quickly. He’s unusual in that he does things by the book, but also does them efficiently.”

By way of example, he describes a giant, city-owned cement planter that had been pushed off-kilter by a truck some 10 years prior, and then was left sitting in a dilapidated state. Residents living nearby had repeatedly called 311, but no staffers seemed to know what the proper channels were to get it removed.

“I called Dave Perri, and said, ‘I’m sorry to bother you, but I’ve got one of those things that I don’t know where else to turn for help,’” Ruben remembers. “It was gone in 48 hours. That same kind of responsiveness is now apparent at L&I.”

Perri’s approach appears to have quickly translated into L&I general practice.

“It used to be no one at the department would respond to emails, or if they did it took months,” Longacre says, reiterating a complaint he’s brought up numerous times in the past. “The first week after Perri took over, we were getting responses same day.”

Asked if he gave his staff a mandate to answer emails, Perri demurs.

“I met with everyone in the department and talked about the direction we wanted to go in, but I never gave anyone a specific order that ‘you have to answer emails within X number of hours,’” he says. “People know I eventually respond to every email that comes to me and folks in the industry know that if they run into a problem, they can always get hold of me. I think it just trickles down.”

Embracing communications

Hiring a communications director was Perri’s first major act as commissioner, proving his deeply held belief that open communication is essential to a well-functioning department — especially one that’s embattled.

“I think [former L&I Commissioner] Carlton Williams was a victim of circumstance. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Perri says, referring to the deadly building collapse at 22nd and Market that thrust the department into a firestorm of accusations and blame-shifting. The L&I inspector who approved plans for the collapsed building committed suicide soon after the incident.

“But anytime there’s a tragedy, the last thing you want to do is not engage with the public and the media,” he continues. “To me, spending the money on a communications director is much more beneficial than trying to buy advertising or change the logo.”

(In 2014, the department spent $50,000 on a design upgrade, the most-noticeable part of which was changing the ampersand in L&I to a plus sign, as in “L+I.”)

“Man, this is the last department in the world that you don’t want to have a good relationship with the public and with the press, because they’ll eat you alive,” Perri observes. “I think [the previous administration] suffered from not handling the public relations piece as best as they could.”

Reorganizing and hiring

So far, Perri has only appointed four new staff members, including comms director Karen Guss. But he has also begun major staffing reorganizations, and more hires are coming soon.

A unit called the Construction Site Task Force had been set up by the previous administration to act as a training ground for new building safety inspectors before they were certified. It has now been disbanded.

“To me, it’s like a nuisance task force has been abolished,” Feibush says of the change.

Perri explains: “The unit was originally set up as a training ground, but people were getting stuck there. We found that 13 inspectors in that unit weren’t fully certified. These folks were limited in their duties — they were allowed to do certain inspections but couldn’t do the full gamut needed in order for them to be of value to the city. What we did was we put them on an intense training program and now 11 out of the 13 are certified.”

Implementing the training program was a big step. Per Perri, no code enforcement agency is able to hire large numbers of people who are already fully qualified, and now that L&I’s training program is set up, the department is seeing agencies from other jurisdictions try to steal its well-trained inspectors away.

A dearth of inspectors in the field has been cited as one reason unsafe demolitions continued even after the 22nd and Market debacle initiated widespread calls for reform, and Perri is addressing that with new hires. By pushing through a reevaluation of job descriptions and titles that had been mired in bureaucratic back-and-forth, already-appropriated hiring funds have been freed up.

Over the next year, 24 new safety inspectors will be hired, Perri says. He also created a wider range of pay grades for those already working, helping insure retention. There are currently 51 safety inspectors who can now make from $46,500 to $55,985.

A bigger overhaul of the department is in the works. Instead of seven different operating divisions, Perri is working to consolidate them to just three, “so there’s clear lines of communication and we group together responsibilities in a logical fashion.”

Tech upgrades

Unburdening staff with tasks that can be handled by a computer also enhances efficiency, and another major change since the beginning of the year is that now, all business license and zoning applications and renewals can be submitted online.

Upgrading L&I’s website to handle this kind of service started under Williams, but stalled for lack of funding.

“They were a little bit ambitious with it, and didn’t quite figure out all the costs needed to actually put together a system that’s going to last and be a legacy,” Perri says. He and his staff were able to convince the city that $2.5 million appropriated to other IT projects should be re-allocated to L&I.

Having all records online not only makes things easier for developers and businesses, it also makes for greater transparency than paper records stored in filing cabinets. That in turn goes back to easing communication with the public and the press.

“We want to be able to answer any questions that come up as quickly as possible,” Perri says. “We want to get the information out there. There’s nothing to hide.”

Being proactive

Perri’s administration faced a major public image test recently when community activists cried foul on the developers of One Water Street.

“That boondoggle really was the most telling and important thing Perri has done at L&I so far,” says Northern Liberties’ Ruben. “As soon as Inga [Saffron] broke the story that these people were going to try to wiggle out of the affordable housing commitment, I thought, ok, what can be done to stop them?”

Ruben immediately thought of refusing to issue a certificate of occupancy until the issue was cleared up. “I thought ugh, we’re going to have to gear up and do this whole public campaign because I can’t count the number of times L&I has given the certificate of occupancy anyway.” He emailed Perri, but instead of including his own ideas, simply asked, “What are your thoughts on this situation?”

Perri’s response: We’re withholding their certificate of occupancy.

“He wasn’t being hard-assed or vindictive,” Ruben notes. “He was just showing spine by actually following the rules and not letting them slide. He fired the first shot in helping save the credibility of the citywide affordable zoning program and the Central Delaware Overlay. It was hugely important.”

Work to be done

Perri is adamant that the changes so far at L&I are only just beginning. At Streets, he says, he was able to concentrate on the long view because he had very strong operational deputies to handle the day-to-day. That’s one of the major things he hopes to effect at his new department.

“The way we are split up in seven different divisions, there’s too much stuff is on the commissioner’s shoulders at any given time. It’s destined to fail.

“This is not an overnight snap-your-fingers all of a sudden exchange,” he continues. “This isn’t ‘Bar Rescue.’ The reform in this department is going to take some time.”

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