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Homes Sinking in Philadelphia

June 17, 1999

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Roseanne Allen was just a visitor, but even she knew that something was wrong with some of the rowhouses that lined her son’s block on Hegerman Street.

``I was cooking an egg in the frying pan, and it slid out and fell on the kitchen floor,″ Allen said of a recent visit to her son David’s home. ``I couldn’t believe my eyes.″

Reports of sliding eggs and floors so slanted that the doors stuck were nothing new to residents on Hegerman, who for years had complained of construction problems in their homes.

Last week, they finally got an explanation to what was happening when city officials notified residents of seven homes that their houses were sinking and ordered an immediate evacuation.

Authorities planned to demolish the homes today, without promising any financial help for the displaced residents.

``I lived in that house 38 years and raised four kids in there, and every time they raised my taxes I paid them,″ said Richard Durr, who stopped by Tuesday to get what will likely be a last look at his house. ``Now they tell us we’re out of luck? It’s inhuman.″

The homes were built in the 1920s on old creek beds filled with a 21-foot layer of ash and cinders. Residents complained for years about crooked floors and windows. The city buttressed several of the homes, then determined two months ago that the problem had worsened.

Shortly after the city ordered homes evacuated Friday, city-leased moving vans were rumbling down the narrow street and crews hurriedly loaded belongings from the small, meticulously maintained rowhouses. People scrambled to pack; many cleaned and swept out their homes before closing the doors forever. Some residents went to stay with relatives; others stayed in hotel suites paid for by the city.

City and state officials are inspecting the site to determine whether sewer work done by the city in 1996 worsened the problem. That possibility was raised this week after a resident produced a videotape he shot that shows stream water flowing through a 30-foot trench dug by the crews.

``If the city has in any way been involved in this, we’ll step up. If not, we’ll look for federal and state aid,″ Mayor Edward G. Rendell has said. ``There are sinking houses in a lot of areas of the city and in every case ... the city cannot go out and buy people a new house.″

Rendell initially said the city would not reimburse residents for their homes because the neighborhood was built before the city regulated home construction. Residents say their homeowners insurance policies will not cover the problem.

Officials would not give cost estimates, which will depend on how many houses are ultimately affected.

Inspectors also are looking over five more homes on Devereaux Avenue _ built over an old creek bed _ to determine whether they, too, must be evacuated.

``At this point, my house is already condemned _ I won’t be able to sell it now. I’m a working-class stiff. What am I supposed to do?″ said Joseph McDowell, a 22-year resident of the block. ``I’ll end up paying a mortgage on a hole in the ground.″

Building houses over stream beds and flood plains was standard practice during the early part of the century in Philadelphia and across the country, said Anne Whiston Spirn, professor of landscape architecture and co-director of urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Whether such homes will eventually cave in depends on the type of fill and the construction of the foundations, she said.

Philadelphia has seen the problem before. In 1987, the city paid about $20 million to bail out homeowners in the city’s Logan section after about 1,000 homes were found to be sinking. Underground streams had eroded the ash landfill under the 80-year-old homes.

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