By Pat Loeb

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A technological breakthrough at Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) could help the city grapple with the potential of danger from hundreds of vacant warehouses, many of which have been reconfigured for commercial space with no permits or inspections and little regard for safety.

L&I spokeswoman Karen Guss says the shutdown of a North Philadelphia warehouse this month is the beginning of a crackdown on such spaces, aided by technology that allows the department to cut through opaque ownership created by LLC’s, or, limited liability corporations.

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“We’ve become better at figuring out these connections and are going to be focusing on targeting unsafe situations like this,” said Guss.

Inspectors found several unsafe conditions inside the warehouse on West Hunting Park Avenue, owned on paper by West Hunting Park LLC. L&I discovered the actual owner was David Damaghi, who’d been cited previously for unsafe conditions at a different property.

Guss says that’s when the Department went to work on finding a way to figure out the actual owners of warehouses recorded as being the property of LLC’s. That, she says, allows inspectors, who are spread thin in a city with a surplus of vacant industrial buildings, to focus on those likely to be violating city codes.

“Unfortunately,” says Guss, “this is not an unusual way that some folks think is a good way to make money. There are many buildings like this in Philadelphia– old industrial buildings– now being snapped up for very little money and turned illegally into spaces that are then rented out to unsuspecting customers.”

Damaghi did not return calls seeking comment, but a Facebook page for “The Artists Lofts of West Hunting Park Avenue” touts a building “full of thriving businesses, approximately 40 and growing, that range from churches, hair salons, pottery studio, fashion boutiques, furniture stores, pole dancing and fitness studio, tax consultants, radio stations, photography studios, photography school, carpentry school, general store, make up studios, recording studios, an art gallery and arts cafe, and SO much more!!!”

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(credit: Pat Loeb)

Guss says the building was empty by the time it was shut down, January 2nd, after Damaghi challenged L&I in court. Common Pleas Judge Abbe Fletman dismissed his request for injunction against the shutdown in a strongly-worded opinion, finding that “the evidence presented at hearing shows that continued operations pose a serious threat of harm to the tenants, their customers, and the surrounding neighborhood.”

Among the conditions Fletman cited were inoperable fire sprinklers and no working fire alarms, along with the presence of such fire hazards as compressed gas canisters containing acetylene, oxygen and fuel gas stored together and unsecured, as well as the use of space heaters with extension cords.

Guss says L&I discovered the conditions because of a call to 311, the city service number, but will now be inspecting all of Damaghi’s properties and will be looking for properties owned by others who’ve been previously cited for similar violations.

She says she hopes the crackdown sends a message.

“If the way you make money is buying old warehouses and chopping them up inside with cheap, flammable building materials, wiring them up illegally, and then renting them out so that flammable gas canisters are right next to artist studios and beauty parlors, you’re not really a landlord or a real estate investor,” she says. “You’re a gambler and you’re gambling with lives of the tenants and the customers and the neighbors because of the heightened risk of fire or explosion.

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“The fire code is not a suggestion, it’s the law. Fix it up or sell. If you can’t operate your property lawfully and safely you should not be operating that property.”