UPDATE, September 13, 2018: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the “Windows and Doors Ordinance,” vacating the Commonwealth Court order striking down the rule. Read the opinion here.
Community groups fighting to revitalize their communities from the blighting effect of boarded up and uncared for buildings lost an important tool when first a Philadelphia court and then the Commonwealth Court struck down a City ordinance requiring operable doors and windows on vacant buildings. Although studies showed a decline in crime and increases in the value of adjoining properties where the ordinance was enforced, the courts held the “Windows and Doors Ordinance” was “merely” about aesthetics and beyond the constitutional power of the City to regulate.
In response to this devastating interference with community revitalization, the Law Center, with the pro bono assistance of lawyers from Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, filed an amicus brief on behalf of six community based organization from neighborhoods across the City telling the Pennsylvania Supreme Court how important the Windows and Doors Ordinance is to the fight on blight and how mistaken the lower courts were. The groups represented by the brief were the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations (with over 120 members), the Tacony Community Development Corporation, the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, the Viola Street Residents Association, the Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation, and the North 5th Street Revitalization Project.
Blight is a significant problem in Philadelphia, as there are thousands of vacant and abandoned buildings. The ordinance required buildings in neighborhoods that are 75% occupied to have functioning doors and windows. In the 17 years since it was passed, the ordinance has served the City well and over 3,000 citations were filed. This did much to reduce boarded up buildings in the city and the overall appearance of its neighborhoods. However, the Commonwealth Court deemed it unconstitutional after a property owner recently fought its validity in court.
The amicus brief argues that the lower court decisions misinterpreted the City’s intentions, ignored the positive effects of the ordinance, and overlooked previous law. Boarded up doors and windows affect the surrounding community in more than merely its aesthetics, but even simply on that issue, both the United States and Pennsylvania supreme courts have ruled that the physical appearance of a community is a valid reason for legislation where, as here, it affects crime, community morale, and the willingness of businesses to invest in a community. The brief tells the stories of the actual use of the ordinance by the amici organizations, and the positive economic and emotional impact that it is having on their neighborhoods.
In addition to the communities’ own experiences, the brief brought together important studies conducted by The Reinvestment Fund, by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, and a study by Econsult Corp., Penn Inst. For Urban Research and May 8 Consulting, the later run by former Law Center attorney, Karen Black.