Construction of Philadelphia rowhomes can easily affect surrounding houses. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

State lawmakers from Philadelphia are trying to pass new legislation that would help prevent rowhomes from being damaged by adjacent demolitions and reduce defects in newly built houses.

Democratic sponsors don’t anticipate pushback from their Republican colleagues, and are hopeful it’ll move through the system quickly. The Building Industry Association of Philadelphia, which represents residential developers, is not opposing the package of bills.

The laws can’t come soon enough for homeowners like Kensington resident Nancy Lewis, who’s been struggling with this issue for three years.

In 2020, a contractor unexpectedly started demolishing the other half of the twin home where Lewis has lived for more than 50 years. Crews working for her neighbor broke through her bathroom and kitchen walls, exposed her basement to the elements, caused water damage, filled her house with generator fumes, and trespassed on her roof, she said.

The 74-year-old widow eventually got help from legal aid attorneys who helped negotiate an agreement providing repairs to her home. But three years later, she said, work to undo the damage still isn’t complete and she runs air purifiers and a basement humidifier all day to keep the house liveable.

“L&I suspended the contractor. Repairs are still happening and I hope they will be done soon.” she told state legislators during a recent hearing in City Hall. “This has been a horrible experience for me.”

Hundreds of other rowhome residents in the River Wards and other Philly neighborhoods could tell similar stories of their experiences during the construction boom of recent years. 

In 2013, seven people died and 13 were injured in the collapse of a Salvation Army thrift store on Market Street caused by adjacent demolition. In 2019 a number of home collapses were caused by unpermitted workers digging out basements improperly and destroying shared rowhome walls, spurring efforts to tighten regulation of contractors.

Experts attribute the problem in part to builders who were poorly trained or cut corners as they rushed to profit from the construction boom fed by the city’s 10-year tax abatement and a general shift toward city living. 

To try to prevent more “construction destruction” in the future, state Rep. Joseph Hohenstein, who represents parts of North and Northeast Philly, is proposing four bills that would boost homeowners’ rights, tighten regulation of contractors, and strengthen code enforcement.

In addition to helping people who live next door to construction projects, the legislation would require developers to repair problems that surface after buyers of new homes move in, such as water infiltration, which is rampant in poorly-built new construction in the Philadelphia region. 

By imposing financial penalties on non-compliant builders, the legislation tries to incentivize developers across the state to do a better job in the first place, Hohenstein said.

“Some of the hazards might be more quiet, things like mold and air quality, but others are going to be pretty serious catastrophic events, like when an entire development that’s only been built out of particleboard goes up in flames and there hasn’t been a sufficient sprinkler system installed,” the state legislator told Billy Penn. “Safety for people in their own home is the underlying theme.”

A ‘bill of rights’ for neighbors of construction

The Aug. 30 City Hall hearing on the bills was put on by the Pa. House of Representatives’ Housing & Community Development committee. 

One of the proposals, the Adjacent Neighbor’s Bill of Rights, is similar to a Philadelphia law that requires builders to inform adjoining residents about their projects. The city law is one of several related to construction safety that were approved in 2021 and went into effect in January.

The state measure would require developers to contact neighbors before work begins, giving them a pamphlet explaining their existing right to negotiate an access agreement and, in some cases, to commission an engineering survey at the developer’s expense.

The law would let people know their options and help them leverage the fact that developers of rowhome projects generally need access to neighboring properties, said Drew Miller, a paralegal with Community Legal Services, a nonprofit that assists residents with housing and other issues.

Many buildings in Philadelphia are built directly next to each other. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

“That’s a situation where we’re able to utilize that moment to have a full conversation” with a builder, Miller said. “There are [developers] that do an excellent job of this already, but there are other folks that do a less good job of it and need to be encouraged.’”

Residents like 74-year-old Lewis often say they have no idea how to respond when contractors start to tear down an adjoining home. Some neighborhoods have banded together to form groups like Build Like You Live Here and the Riverwards L+I Coalition, which has worked with the Department of Licenses and Inspections to educate people about construction regulations and pressured contractors to follow the rules.

“When construction started next door to my home, I did not know who to turn to for help,” North Philly resident Latricia King told the House committee, recounting an adjoining project that dug deeper than her foundation and caused the sidewalk to fall in, resulting in an L&I safety violation issued for King’s house. “I was afraid my home would collapse.”

King said she couldn’t afford a lawyer, but was eventually able to negotiate an access agreement with help from Community Legal Services.

Reduce the need for lawsuits, housing lawyer pleads

Another of the proposed bills, the Residential Construction Lemon Law, would essentially create automatic warranties on new homes. 

As currently written, builders would have six months to fix any defects that turn up within two years of a home being bought, or else face legal liability for 150 percent of the repair costs. A planned change to the bill would extend the coverage beyond two years, with the revised time span still to be determined, Hohenstein said.

The measure is an attempt to help the many people who find they need extensive and sometimes very costly repairs to their newly built homes, especially after water damage due to improperly constructed roofs, stucco, flashing, and other building elements. Developers often provide no warranty, warranties that only last a year, or warranties with major exceptions, and sometimes fail to honor them completely.

Passing the bill would reduce the need to resort to lawsuits, Philadelphia attorney Jennifer Horn told legislators at the hearing.

Horn’s law firm and others have in recent years won millions of dollars in judgements against Philadelphia developer Streamline and other companies over water damage.

“It’s family after family in Lehigh County, Erie County, Lancaster County, living in homes that they think are fine, but in reality are rotting from the inside out,” Horn said. “We have more work than we can handle. We don’t market, because the phone just rings and rings and rings. It is atrocious. It’s horrific. In Pennsylvania, it should not be happening.”

A lot on the 1300 block of Germantown Avenue slated for development. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A third bill would tweak the definition of a homeowner, in an effort to make sure more home-flippers — people who buy, renovate, and quickly resell houses — are subject to laws regulating contractors. To be exempt from contractor rules, a homeowner would have to maintain ownership for a year after construction is completed.

The fourth bill would expand education requirements for code enforcement officers and residential building code inspectors to cover more aspects of construction.

Builders ask for changes but offer tentative support

The bills, which were first introduced two years ago, have several Democratic co-sponsors, including Philadelphia Reps. Liz Fiedler, Mary Isaacson, Ed Neilson and Stephen Kinsey. Hohenstein said state Sen. Nikil Saval is preparing companion legislation in the Senate. 

There are no Republican co-sponsors, but Hohenstein noted that the hearing was attended by Republicans including Rep. Rich Irvin of Huntingdon County in central Pa., who is Republican chair of the Housing & Community Development committee. 

With Republicans in the majority in the state Senate, their support will be needed to pass the package and send it to Gov. Josh Shapiro for his signature.

“It’s really not a partisan idea by any stretch of the imagination,” Hohenstein said. “We’re waiting on a formal Republican position on it. But I do believe that once it goes through committee, we will see pretty substantial Republican support for it.”

Irvin declined a request for comment.

The Building Industry Association of Philadelphia offered tentative support for the legislative package during the hearing. 

Mary Collins, a construction executive who spoke for the BIA, said the group supports efforts to reduce deficient and unsafe construction but also asked for a number of changes to the bills.

They include a narrowing of the definition of construction defect that a new home builder would be responsible for fixing and protection against lawsuits after a repair. The group is also asking for a different process for determining financial liability for defects, different language on an adjacent homeowner’s right to demand an engineering survey, and other modifications.

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...