Paintbrush in hand, Cesar Viveros has spent years working to beautify Philadelphia.
In 2015, he designed “The Sacred Now“- a Mural Arts tribute to Pope Francis during the Catholic leader’s visit to the city. Thousands of volunteers, including the pope himself, added brushstrokes to the massive painting.
Years later, the mural remains intact, but the world around Viveros has been shaken.
In March, contractors were digging in an empty lot next to Viveros’ house when they fractured one of his walls. The contractors, Rock Haven Builders, had been excavating a plot of land owned by real estate developer V2 Properties.
The construction debacle forced Viveros and his two children out of their Kensington home.
“I feel lucky that I have family,” said Viveros, who’s been staying with a cousin in the meantime.
While Viveros doesn’t own the house, he’s rented it for years, and the incident interrupted everyday life. Viveros, who still works as a muralist, could no longer use his patio to test paint colors. He juggled work with commutes to see his children, who lived temporarily in another location.
Neighbors on Viveros’ quiet block wondered when he would return, while friends created a GoFundMe. Finally, in late July, Viveros received the news that his house was once again safe to enter. By the time he got that phone call from his landlord, Viveros and his children had been displaced more than four months.
For Viveros, returning was crucial: the row home holds memories of his wife, who passed away last year.
“Most of our memories are on that house,” Viveros explained. “That’s why we decide to wait. That’s the main reason. Otherwise, we’d probably be out of there, for good.”
Viveros’ story is not an exception. It’s part of a trend. And while Viveros works to return to normalcy, the contractors who displaced his family retain their licenses to operate in Philadelphia.
Over the past 18 months, the city has seen a “definite increase” in damage caused by poor excavation practices, according to the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections. Flawed construction has harmed and even destroyed homes, leaving residents like Viveros to pick up the pieces.
‘Just kept plowing through’
When Rock Haven contractors cracked Viveros’ basement wall, L&I classified the building as imminently dangerous. City officials also discovered a lack of required inspections and permits. At one point, Rock Haven was expected to schedule an inspection with the city and neglected to do so.
“The contractor didn’t notify the inspector,” said Guss, L&I spokesperson. “Just kept plowing through.”
Destabilizing the Viveros home was not the first time Rock Haven violated city policy. It also wasn’t the last.
Last December, Rock Haven and V2 Properties were sued by the city for working without permits and falsifying permits. Together, the two companies racked up $160,000 in fines and permit fees. They remain able to work in Philadelphia, and legally so.
Currently, V2 owns hundreds of housing units throughout Philadelphia, including the lot next to Viveros’ home. The developer has acquired new properties as recently as May, city records show.
Since damaging Viveros’ home, Rock Haven has continued to violate city policy — even on the same empty lot. On May 30, according to L&I’s database, Rock Haven was found working again without appropriate permits. After discovering the violation, the city issued a stop-work order.
When contractors or developers damage a neighboring home, the city can take action — to an extent. L&I can revoke the license of a contractor, barring the construction company from operating in Philadelphia.
But when it comes to reprimanding the developers themselves, things get complicated.
“We can’t take [away] an owner’s license, because there isn’t one,” Guss explained. “So we really don’t have much of a control in that area.”
City: ‘We want to have the resources’
Because Rock Haven caused the damage, the company was tasked with repairing Viveros’ house, and with hiring a licensed engineer to inspect the restoration. This process took over four months for Rock Haven, leaving Viveros and his family in limbo.
The city does not financially contribute to the repairs.
“Not that we don’t want to help those people, but it can’t be that you as a contractor, a property owner get to make a mess, and then the city pays to clean it up,” Guss said. “You’re responsible for your property, and when you damage other people’s property, you’re responsible for that, too.”
In some cases, there is no remaining property for contractors to fix. In February, negligent excavation sent one Fishtown home crumbling to the ground. Workers were digging beneath a vacant house when they cracked a wall in the adjacent home’s basement.
That day, Jennifer Sampson Romaniw stood in the cold and watched as her grandmother’s house collapsed. Months later, the sting of losing her family home remains. Now, Romaniw communicates with residents through Riverwards L+I Coalition, a Facebook community group that monitors construction throughout the city.
“The residents have nobody to reach out to,” she told Billy Penn. “Nobody has their back to kind of stick up for them and say, you know, ‘No, you can’t come in the neighborhoods and destroy somebody’s home and then move on once you’ve made your profit.'”
Shortly after the collapse in Fishtown, the city revoked the license of Q Construction Group, the contractor responsible for the home’s destruction. Then, L&I referred the case to the District Attorney’s Office to be investigated as a criminal offense.
Will the same be done for the contractors who damaged Viveros home? Guss said it’s too early to tell whether the city will revoke Rock Haven’s permits.
With thousands of contractors in Philadelphia, it’s difficult for the department to track illegal construction and stop irresponsible actions before they cause damage, Guss said. Last year, the city oversaw 290,000 inspections, but L&I hopes for a wider reach.
In June, L&I requested an additional $2 million in funding to hire more inspectors. The department also plans to implement an online platform for contractors. Through this database, the city can more easily track which contractors are scheduling inspections, and which contractors are avoiding them.
“We do want to have the resources to go after these guys,” Guss added.
Waiting for ‘relief’
Viveros’ absence from his Kensington block has not gone unnoticed.
Linda Marie Fountain, who’s lived there for 20 years, spends her summer months handing out free lunches to children through a city program. Each year, she asks Viveros to paint the streets for the kids, and he does.
“This year, I probably won’t be able to do it, if I don’t come back on time,” Viveros said.
Sitting outside her house, Fountain scrolled through her phone- Viveros sends her pictures of his new murals, keeping her updated on his artwork.
“He always was here, you know, to help me out,” she said. “He’s a very good person.”
Viveros’ artwork is a fixture in his neighborhood. Not far from his home sits the Cesar Andreu Iglesias Community Garden. The little farm flourishes with corn stalks, strawberry bushes, and bright sculptures reminiscent of Viveros’ home country, Mexico. He hopes to add more artwork in the future.
“When we move back, if we move back, it’s going to be wonderful,” Viveros said. “It’s going to be a relief.”