Update, Mar. 19: Last Stop’s court date has been pushed back as it attempts to correct the violations; the center is forming its first-ever board of directors.
In a rare crackdown, Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has lodged a $1.7 million lawsuit against one of Philadelphia’s best-known addiction recovery centers for failing to comply with city zoning laws.
Operating in the shadow of Somerset Station, the Last Stop offers daily 12-step meetings and the occasional place to sleep for people experiencing homelessness — which is the problem.
Last September, the Department of Licenses and Inspections cited the newly relocated facility for providing overnight housing — not allowed under its current CMX-2 zoning without a variance — and for hosting more than 50 people for meetings at a time without a proper Certificate of Occupancy. The fall 2018 citations came on top of unaddressed violation notices from 2017, according to L&I.
According to the suit filed in the Court of Common Pleas last month, city attorneys allege that the Last Stop founder Eddie Zampitella continued operations and did not resolve the issues within 30 days of his most recent notice. He’s due to appear in court on March 12 — but if he continues running the recovery center in the meantime, he’ll owe the city even more cash.
“I’m in trouble, because the city is charging me $2,000 a day for having an 8 o’clock meeting,” Zampitella told Billy Penn. “But the problem is there’s an epidemic.”
As the opioid crisis rages on, Kenney’s administration has been leading massive cleanup efforts along the Kensington Avenue corridor where the Last Stop is located.
And notably, the Last Stop isn’t an outlier. Hundreds of so-called recovery homes operate unlicensed and unregulated in North Philadelphia with little recourse from the city — many of them for profit.
City spokesperson Mike Dunn told Billy Penn that this is “not at all unusual,” and that the administration would address any property owner that did not handle their code violations in a timely manner.
“The city is acutely aware of the issues surrounding the opioid epidemic and the needs of the surrounding community,” Dunn said. “However, the violation notices are the result of concern for the safety of the public that may be utilizing this facility.”
Zampitella had ample opportunity to avoid the court date, according to L&I spokesperson Karen Guss.
“If the owner contested the violations’ accuracy or needed more time to bring the property into compliance, he had an opportunity to challenge those violations through filing an appeal,” Guss said. “He elected not to do so.”
Guss also stressed that L&I was not singling out the Last Stop, noting that the city inspects all properties “ostensibly being used in an unlawful and unsafe manner – regardless whether the owners call them ‘recovery houses’ or ‘senior housing’ or ‘Buckingham Palace.'”
Code violations and neighborhood complaints
The Last Stop originally operated out of a building on Kensington Avenue near Front Street. But as the area developed, Zampitella said, the locus of people on the street who needed help shifted north. In early 2018, he packed up and moved his operation to Somerset Street.
The move became more problematic than Zampitella anticipated. For one, he thought the zoning classification of his property — which records show he purchased for $70,000 in January 2017 — complied with how he intended to use it.
Asked about the Last Stop’s shutdown in October, Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, in whose district the center operates, emphasized the importance of maintaining property that is up to code. “Businesses need to be good neighbors and comply with our regulations,” Quiñones-Sánchez said.
Reached for comment Tuesday, she acknowledged that other addiction recovery outfits have been running afoul of city zoning laws for years in the neighborhood. She could not say why the Last Stop was targeted.
“A lot of these places aren’t legal,” Quiñones-Sánchez said. “With new money coming in for Kensington, we’ve been having discussions about what the criteria should be to make these sites adequate. There has to be community process.”
No stranger to confrontation, Zampitella has feuded with neighboring businesses and residents around his Somerset Street facility. He says they blame him for the neighborhood’s existing problems — the same ones he says he’s trying to help alleviate.
Making the Last Stop compliant would have required getting a zoning variance — a long process that entails filling out an application, getting approval from the City Planning Commission and the blessing of a local community organization (RCO) and pleading the case in front of the full Zoning Board of Adjustment. It’s unclear if Zampitella ever applied for the variance.
Regardless, the lawsuit came before he could resolve his violations. In anticipation of the court date next month, Zampitella has lawyered up — and asked alumni of the 18-year recovery operation to turn out and support him.
“A lot of people got sober at our club,” he said. “I’m hoping with the credibility, the articles about us, the judge will lean toward what’s really right.”
Zampitella added: “I believe that once they know what we do, and other people step up and tell them what we do, we’ll be OK.”
Billy Penn political editor Max Marin contributed to this report.