Nuisance Property Unit Chief Tracy Ruffin (right) and inspectors Michael Ross and Aileen Fonseca look over their notes after a visit to the Blue Moon Hotel

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Tracy Ruffin stepped out onto the West Philly sidewalk around 10:30 p.m. on a Friday and began furiously swiping at the cuffs of his pants.

As chief of L&I’s Nuisance Property Unit, he’d seen infestations during inspections before, but you never really get used to bugs — and the Blue Moon Hotel was quite literally crawling with them.

“All the floors were lined with boric acid, so the roaches were just all up in the walls,” said code enforcement inspector Aileen Fonseca, swatting at her own ankles. “Lots of dark spots where guests had crushed them into the paint, too.”

She shuddered and walked across the dark street to the NPU van, where fellow inspectors Michael Ross and Keith Billie were waiting. Billie had stayed outside as the rest of the crew conducted their inspection, mostly as a precaution, since the last time the unit visited the Blue Moon, someone had slashed their vehicle’s tires.

Fonseca rummaged in the trunk and pulled out a can of bug spray. “At least it’s not fleas,” Ruffin said as he waved the OFF in front Fonseca’s jeans. “Fleas you can sometimes take home with you.”

There was nothing he could do about the roaches in the building, he explained, because the hotel’s extermination record was up to date. But that wasn’t the reason he’d come, anyway. Neither was the fact that the Blue Moon, at 5101 Westminster Ave., is a known haven for prostitution — rooms are available by the hour ($40 for three hours or $47 for up to 12, plus double that for “overtime” and extra if it’s a weekend).

Ruffin waits for the Blue Moon’s owner in the hotel lobby before starting his inspection
Ruffin waits for the Blue Moon’s owner in the hotel lobby before starting his inspection

Nor was the illegal sale of sex something the NPU’s police escort was concerned with at the moment, although their presence by the check-in desk definitely unnerved the people sliding cash beneath the bulletproof glass in trade for room keys and a clean set of ratty sheets.

On that night, the cops were there solely for the protection of the L&I inspectors. And the L&I inspectors were mostly concerned with one thing: Whether the hotel owner had fixed his many recent fire code violations, or whether the patrons lighting cigarettes and firing up space heaters inside the multistory building were still at serious risk of dying in a fire.

Death by code violation

On the morning of Dec. 3, news broke that more than three dozen had died in an overnight fire that ripped through a communal artists clubhouse in Oakland, California. The space was packed with people enjoying an underground concert, and most were apparently trapped inside when the fire struck — there were no clearly marked exits in the ramshackle space, and no sprinkler system in the building. There was no sign smoke alarms had even gone off.

There’s still no clear explanation for where to place blame for the tragedy, but Oakland officials had previously cited the location for various code violations.

That set off alarms in the mind of L&I Commissioner David Perri. Even before the news hit mainstream media and proliferated across social platforms, he emailed his top staff a link to an early Daily Mail recap of the events with a note praising Ruffin and his diligent work with the NPU team to avoid similar catastrophes in Philly.

“This is why we do what we do,” Perri wrote. “Thank you Tracy, et. al.”

The Department of Licenses and Inspections has many varied roles and responsibilities, but ensuring public safety is its foremost mission — and Ruffin and his rotating 12-member crew are the front lines of defense.

NPU inspectors don’t wear bulletproof vests or uniforms, just carry a badge
NPU inspectors don’t wear bulletproof vests or uniforms, just carry a badge

Of the several hundred L&I complaints that come in every month via the various pathways like community meetings, police reports, LCB filings and 311 calls, an average of 90 or so deal with things that take place after hours. Massage parlors acting as illegal brothels. Homes set up as strip clubs, with a full pole and stage where the living room should be. DIY clubs hosting unsanctioned live music shows. Rowhouses that sell booze as late-night speakeasies.

In his two and a half years as NPU chief, Ruffin has seen it all. Yet his job isn’t to punish these offenders. That’s another agency’s job. It’s not even necessarily to shut them down immediately — although sometimes he does.

“I’ll give you a scenario,” he said, describing a visit to a club he was called to because it was hosting parties without a special assembly license. “We want to make sure the DJ booth is properly connected to the fire alarm system. Because if the alarm goes off and the music is still playing, no one can hear it. That happens a lot.”

When Ruffin issues a cease and desist order during an inspection like this, it’s a safety issue to prevent calamities like the Oakland fire, he explained. Not about being a killjoy.

That doesn’t stop people from hating on or complaining about L&I. On the same night they visited the Blue Moon, the NPU also swung by two improperly licensed clubs on West Girard Avenue and slapped cease violation notices on the doors, prompting online shade from both venue operators and partygoers.

From shakedown to straight shooter

It’s no surprise Philadelphians are skeptical about the motives of the department, which has only recently appeared to be cleaning itself up after decades of rampant corruption.

The after-hours unit, which was previously called the Nuisance Task Force, was especially well-known for unsavory practices. It gained a rep as a shakedown unit, trading favors and bribes in return for turning a blind eye to underground liquor sales or brothels. Though he was recently acquitted, former L&I Deputy Commissioner Dominic Verdi was indicted in 2014 on charges of trading favors when he was Task Force chief, offering preferential treatment or advance notice of raids if club owners bought from a beer distributor in which he had a stake.

So then-Commissioner Carlton Williams decided the unit needed an overhaul. He gave it a new title — “Nuisance Property Unit” — and instituted a certification push.

“L&I has moved into a direction of education,” said Ruffin, whom Williams appointed as the NPU’s first leader. “Not only do the building inspectors need certification, but operation inspectors need certification. The whole L&I inspectional staff has to be certified.”

Ruffin was no chance pick to lead a unit trying to rid itself of a besmirched reputation. In the words of department spokesperson Karen Guss, “He’s no cowboy.”

Nuisance Property Unit Chief Tracy Ruffin, inspector Keith Billie, inspector Michael Ross, inspector Aileen Fonseca
Nuisance Property Unit Chief Tracy Ruffin, inspector Keith Billie, inspector Michael Ross, inspector Aileen Fonseca Credit: Danya Henninger/Billy Penn

A 29-year veteran of the department, Ruffin was born and raised in North Philly and spent four years in the Marine Corps, serving as a helicopter mechanic in Beruit. When he returned home in 1985, he looked for a stable job so he could help care for his sick mother. He ended up at L&I.

His initial position was as a laborer in the cleaning unit, where he spent his days cementing up busted crack houses and cleaning up boarded properties. His strong work ethic led to a promotion to cleaning supervisor, and then higher-ups encouraged him to take the test and apply to be a field investigator. He did, and from there kept moving up, first to enforcement officer, then code enforcement inspector, then code administrator. Then Williams tapped him to run the NPU.

Ruffin agrees he’s well-suited to the job because he’s not confrontational, but can be firm. He’s well organized, and knows the code front to back. Also, he notes, “24/7 I’m available. My kids are grown. If my unit calls me at 3:45 a.m. because they need me for a situation, I go.”

Keeping people safe

Ruffin also has a deep-seated urge to keep people safe from fires. When he was 16 he and a group of friends tried to rescue a neighbor from a burning building — and failed.

“He was an elderly man, Mr. Strong, and he lived by himself,” Ruffin recalled. “We tried to get inside to help him, but we couldn’t. I didn’t know that fire and smoke would be so prevalent throughout the building that we couldn’t even get up the steps.”

Luckily, the Fire Department arrived and was able to save the man.

Ruffin briefs Sergeant Christopher Lantz of the 16th Police District after the Blue Moon inspection
Ruffin briefs Sergeant Christopher Lantz of the 16th Police District after the Blue Moon inspection

“Once I became an inspector I thought about that, and that pushed me on the seriousness of having a building up to code,” Ruffin said, “to make sure it’s safe.”

He describes the Nuisance Property Unit’s modus operandi as “customer friendly.” When he or his crew show up, people let them in without trouble 99 percent of the time.

“Nobody wants any problem,” he said. “We’re here to make you come into compliance. We’re not here to punish you.”

Sure enough, when the NPU arrived at the Blue Moon last month, no one stood in their way. And after traipsing through the entire floorplan, Ruffin left satisfied that its “guests” were safe — at least from dying of smoke inhalation. Several major violations that had earned the hotel owner a date in court had been fixed, like lack of fire alarm certification and light fixtures with open wires hanging dangerously far from the ceilings. While he did find some improper situations, such as fire doors propped open, they weren’t enough to merit a shutdown.

The hotel owner won’t even have to pay that much in fines. The $525 L&I assessed on the property is for several years worth of visits — the standard fee is just $75, and that’s only charged on reinspection, not a first visit.

“It’s due process,” Ruffin said. “We want just to give everyone the opportunity to come into compliance. For the safety of the public.”

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...