A crumbling sidewalk on Green Street near 11th

If you close your eyes, you can see it. You’re walking along in your neighborhood when all of a sudden the sidewalk seems to dissolve. Your next step — or trip, stumble or roll — is marked by crunching pebbles and a cloud of dust.

So many of Philly’s sidewalks are in a state of disrepair that residents have taken it to court. Four disability advocacy organizations filed a suit saying local walkways are “dilapidated, disintegrating and teeming with obstructions” to the point that they discriminate against neighbors with limited mobility.

Who actually bears the burden of fixing the city’s dilapidated walkways?

Sidewalks are technically private land, which means individual homeowners are the ones on the hook for maintenance.

Replacing one sidewalk square can cost more than $100, so the bill can add up. And in Philadelphia, where nearly half the population is economically insecure, it might not be realistic to expect folks to fork over hundreds of dollars for a fix.

“It makes no sense to write up…people who do not have the ability to make the repair,” Commissioner David Perri of Licenses and Inspections told Philly Mag in 2016.

Even when people can afford the expense, it’s unclear whether they’ll go through the effort — since there’s zero penalty for leaving sidewalks exactly as they are.

With a fresh lawsuit on their hands, will local lawmakers change the system? For now, reform isn’t a popular topic among city officials. One councilmember says he’s got an idea — but it’d be costly.

No tracking of what’s repaired, no penalty if not 

When you come across a broken sidewalk, you’re supposed to register a complaint with the city via Philly311.

Once the message gets to the Streets Department, it will deploy one of about a dozen inspectors to investigate. If they can confirm squares of sidewalk are broken, said Streets spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco, the inspector will issue a notice directing the homeowner to repair them.

The city received 3,100 of these complaints about sidewalks in 2018, PlanPhilly recently reported. More than half resulted in repair notices being issued.

Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Yet it’s unknown how many people actually respond to the notices, because the Streets Department doesn’t keep a record, per Cofrancisco. Plus, there’s no penalty associated with a repair notice — nor any positive reinforcement incentive if a homeowner does follow through on a fix.

L&I Commissioner Perri — whose department bears no official burden in repairing sidewalks — tried three years ago to reform the system. If L&I handled things, Perri argued, his department could issue real tickets that might better compel action.

The city turned him down.

“We aren’t comfortable adding more functions to L&I while it’s still undergoing reform measures to more effectively complete its core services,” then-mayoral spokesperson Lauren Hitt said at the time.

New: Apply for a sidewalk-fix loan

The Streets Department doesn’t have any cash to spend on sidewalk repairs, spokesperson Cofrancisco clarified. But Philly did recently made some progress in this vein.

In March, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority pioneered a home repair program that provides qualifying Philadelphians with low-interest loans to fix up their property. Sidewalk repairs are eligible for a loan, according to the authority’s website.

So far, two RDA loans have been earmarked for sidewalk repairs, per Cofrancisco.

How do other cities handle it? At one point, Los Angeles offered to foot the bill for fixing sidewalks altogether. That might have been a little too ambitious; the city didn’t actually follow through.

In New York and Minneapolis, if you fail to repair your sidewalk in a timely manner, city contractors will do it and bill you for it later. Memphis provides public assistance to homeowners who make less than $25,000 per year or fall below the poverty line.

Billy Penn reached out to all 17 members of City Council to gauge their interest in reforming Philly’s system. Only a small handful responded, and fewer still had any ideas.

Locally, District 1 Councilmember Mark Squilla — who heads up the streets and services committee — has one suggestion.

He envisions a system where, if a homeowner doesn’t make sidewalk repairs within a certain amount of time, the city would fix the walkway on their behalf. Then, they’d place a lien on the property so when it next sells, the city gets paid back.

The idea has several limitations.

“Given the number of sidewalks in disrepair, this idea poses big challenges because it would be very labor intensive, costly and a burden administratively,” said Anne Kelly, the councilperson’s chief of staff. “It continues to be on Councilmember Squilla’s radar.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...