By Ben Simmoneau
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The CBS 3 I-Team has learned the owners of the abandoned warehouse at the center of a fire that killed two Philadelphia firefighters own dozens of other properties across the city and owe the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in back real estate taxes.
City records show Nahman, Yechiel, and Michael Lichtenstein own at least 30 properties in neighborhoods across the city. The properties are held under various names, range in size from hulking structures to two-story row homes, and are in various states of repair. Many of the row homes are clustered in West or Southwest Philadelphia.
City officials said the Kensington warehouse that burned Monday on East York Street was not just a blighted, unsafe property, but the owners also owe $60,000 in back taxes. And the I-Team has found that’s just a fraction of their outstanding tax bill. In total, records show they owe more than $385,000 in past due city taxes.
That includes outstanding bills on some fairly prominent properties. The city says the Lichtensteins are behind a long-stalled condo project in the heart of Center City: Thomas Lofts at 726-728 Market Street, where they owe $278,610.42 in back property taxes. Those back-due bills date at least to 2009, yet the city has taken little action, even though it sits in the middle of Market East, a corridor the city has long hoped to revitalize.
Tenants say foreclosure proceedings have started against the owners – but those proceedings appear to be initiated by the bank which holds a mortgage on the property, not by the city.
“About a month ago, we got a letter from the state saying this building is going into foreclosure, and all the contracts we signed are null and void,” said Merudh Patel, a renter at Thomas Lofts. “I just feel like [the owners] don’t really take care of the building. They do the bare minimum to get by.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The City of Philadelphia clarified on April 20th that the owners of the warehouse where the two firefighters died had already entered into payment plans with the city to pay off the back taxes on most of their properties. See related story)
When the I-Team tried to get answers inside the building, we were told the police would be called by a man who refused to identify himself.
Thomas Lofts sits near the corner of 8th and Market and appears to have been a condo conversion stopped short. The building’s façade features rough brick, plywood and exposed steel studs. Half of it is boarded up. Patel, the tenant, says only four floors inside of the nine-story building have been finished – and those finished units have been rented out.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter could not explain how the property, just blocks from Independence Hall, could sit for years accumulating enormous unpaid tax bills.
“They apparently over the past few years have been buying a number of properties and stopped paying taxes on some of them,” the mayor said. “They’ve been elusive; we will be more aggressive.”
The mayor said that will include a full review of all the properties the Lichtensteins owe – from the perspective of safety and code violations and investigating back due taxes.
Elsewhere, the Lichtensteins own numerous row homes, in various states of repair and with varying amounts of outstanding taxes. Many are held under the names “YML Realty” or “YML Housing.”
One property, at 60 North Salford Street is boarded up and is behind in taxes by $8,500. Another, on the 5600 block of Litchfield Street in Southwest Philadelphia, is in good repair and appears to be occupied yet is still $3,300 behind in taxes. The boyfriend of a tenant of the Lichtensteins on the 5200 block of Rodman Street said the tenant had no idea the Lichtensteins owed more than $5,000 in city taxes on her property.
Another tenant, this time on North 61st Street who asked not to be identified, said she’s had no problems with the Lichtensteins. They do not owe any back taxes on her home.
“I never had any bad run-ins with them,” she said but added: “I’m just really shocked – I’m really shocked. Nothing surprises me with people.”
A spokesman for the New York law firm representing the Lichtensteins said they would have no comment on Tuesday.