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The Frankford Story III: The New Flophouses

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By Mike Newall

 

The pastor was calling state Rep. Tony Payton's office with big plans to convert a cavernous, shuttered nightclub at the corner of Orthodox and Margaret Streets, just one block from a Frankford El train station, into a mega drug recovery house with up to 50 beds.

No dice, said the representative.

"We killed it," said Jorge Santana, Payton's Chief of Staff, recalling the proposed project that that came into Payton's Frankford office in November.

The reasoning was simple, said Santana.

Frankford has more than enough recovery houses -- probably a higher concentration than any other neighborhood in the city. The old nightclub was a perfect spot for a badly needed new business that could bring some life to the battered avenue marred by so many vacant storefronts. 

"We need to restore the commercial corridor to commercial uses," said Santana. "We need to create jobs."

The story typifies an issue that's causing a bitter divide among Frankford residents, many of whom believe recovery houses are stemming development and contributing to rising crime.

"We've been inundated with recovery houses," said Santana. "Recovery houses should be a shared responsibility for the entire city, not just Frankford."

 

The new flophouses

In recent years, despite protests from residents, three outpatient drug treatment centers have clustered along Frankford Avenue. These centers are licensed and accredited and provide services to hundreds of struggling people. But in their wake has come a flood of drug recovery houses, some of which are city-funded or run by well-intentioned non-profits. Too many are illegally operated flophouses - sham efforts to milk welfare dollars from addicts.

According to a recent city survey, 40 recovery houses are located in Frankford, second only to Kensington with 48. But that survey is not a full accounting of the houses, admits Roland Lamb, Director of Philly's Office of Addiction Services. Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez's office conducted its own survey that puts the number of recovery houses at over 100, many of them bedding a dozen or so struggling addicts or recidivists.

The growing number of recovery homes far outweighs the need, say critics.

Police statistics support those claims.

Frankford had 1,200 drug-related arrests in 2007, but more than 100 recovery houses. Other Philly neighborhoods had twice that many arrests, but just a handful of recovery homes.

Frankford residents argue there should be more homes in other districts to serve the addicts there. And, they say, too many recovery homes in their neighborhood are nothing more than flophouses.

Terry McSherry is the CEO of Northeast Treatment Center, an outpatient center that landed on Frankford Avenue in 2007.

"Some of the recovery homes are well-run and dedicated and doing fantastic work," he says. "Others are run by entrepreneurs motivated by something else entirely."

Greed.

The scam is easy. Buy an old Frankford row house or larger Victorian-style home at basement prices -- or just rent it from an absentee landlord -- throw in a half-dozen bunk beds and you've got yourself a recovery house. There are no zoning regulations for recovery houses; owners only need to apply for boarding-house zoning. Many only apply if they get reported to L & I, said Pete Specos of the Frankford Civic Association.

Most sham recovery houses offer no drug services, but still take tenants monthly welfare assistance, often about $300.

Do the math. It's not a bad take.

 

Neighborhood anger

Projected census numbers from a City Planning Commission study on Frankford say the neighborhood surrounding the El corridor lost about 750 households since 2005. Many families sold or lost their homes to foreclosure in recent years and now transients are becoming the area's biggest import.  Councilwoman Sanchez, who represents Frankford and is also the chair of council's Licenses and Inspections committee, provided L & I with the list of Frankford's 100 recovery and boarding homes. So far, there are no reports of action by L&I.

Police Officers say they've seen a correlation between rising crime in Frankford and the influx of absentee landlords and flophouses in the neighborhood.

"Rarely do we visit a home in Frankford that's actually owned by the people living in it," said Sgt Dan Dutch of Strike Force North, a narcotics unit.  

The atmosphere of distrust between recovery residents and neighbors is a growing problem, said Captain Francis Bachmayer, commanding officer of the 15th District, which includes Frankford. He once sent an undercover officer into a recovery house after neighbors complained of drug activity. Once inside, the undercover cop was treated to an hour long sermon on the dangers of drug use.

Neighborhood anger is palpable on Church Street in Lower Frankford where a recovery house operates near a church and school.  Residents won a zoning battle against the house, but the house was still operating on a recent afternoon. Joyce Fiore and Ashley stood on the recovery houses' small porch. The young women had been sober for only weeks. They said nine women lived in the house, two or three to a room, each paying about $300 a month. They said it was clean enough and not as bad as other recovery houses they've stayed where the landlords promised food and services but provided nothing but a dirty mattress.

 "A lot of people would still be getting high without these places," said Ashley.

Next door, longtime resident Margie Rivera was taking out her trash cans. She said the recovery house was ruining the block. Men and women coming at all hours of the night, fighting in the street and buying drugs.

"They don't belong here," she said, sneering at the women.


The Frankford Story IV: How political infighting stalls progress in Frankford.

           

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