Taken by prosecutor, sold to police: Inside the Philadelphia DA’s side hustle — selling Black & Latino People's Seized Homes to Speculators and Cops

From [HERE] Maleny Vazquez remembers when the police came and took the house across the street. Vazquez has only lived on this block of Waterloo Street for a few years, but in this chaotic section of Kensington, riven by the drug trade, she has gotten used to seeing police empty homes.

“There were lot of guns and a lot of drugs in there,” she recalls. “They took 30 guns out of there.”

In neighborhoods across Philadelphia, the city sells homes that owe back taxes, or have fallen into foreclosure. But the sales in Vazquez’s neighborhood were different. Here, police seized properties after drug raids. Once they were taken, the district attorney auctioned them off to the highest bidder, for cash that went back to the law enforcement agencies. The legal process is known as civil asset forfeiture.

Vazquez has never heard this term, she just watched as neighbors were taken away in cuffs and their homes sold by the DA –– controversially, with no guilty verdict required. She doesn’t know exactly how many of the two-story rowhomes on her block were forfeited, but she knows it was a lot.

In fact, the number of seized homes on Vazquez’s block was more than anywhere else in Pennsylvania. No other jurisdiction in Pennsylvania took as much property as Philadelphia and no other block in the city saw as many forfeiture petitions as this narrow stretch of two-story rowhomes on Waterloo Street. On Vazquez’s block, the DA attempted to seize nearly one-quarter of the properties between 2011 and 2015 alone.

The escalation of America’s drug war in the 1980s saw police ramp up the use of asset forfeiture here and on other blocks in the shadow of Kensington’s infamous Gurney Street drug market, near an abandoned rail line that long attracted encampments of opioid users. Abundant evidence of drug activity and a lack of legal representation for indigent clients made securing a forfeiture petition from a judge easy work. A forfeiture petition for one property lists one gram of marijuana, a half gram of cocaine and some over-the-counter pills as justification for taking. In one case recently settled in a $3 million class-action lawsuit, Norys Hernandez nearly lost the rowhouse she and her sister owned after police arrested her nephew on drug dealing charges and seized the house. Another family named in the suit fought to save their house from the grip of law enforcement after their son was arrested for selling $40 worth of drugs outside of it. Of the lawsuit’s four named plaintiffs, three had their houses targeted for seizure after police accused relatives dealing drugs on the property. None of the homeowners were themselves accused of committing a crime.

As families fought to keep homes targeted by the DA, the revenues from the forfeiture sales became a big moneymaker for local law enforcement – netting some $6 million annually in the best years. The proceeds turned into an unregulated budget split between the police and DA. The money made off of the seized homes went to buy wish list items ranging from new submachine guns to custom uniform embroidery. But officials long maintained that these sales weren’t about the cash; they were meant to empower the city to kick out dealers, seal houses and move properties out of the hands of alleged criminals.

Forfeiture was supposed to improve communities. Or so authorities said.

But a PlanPhilly analysis of 1,682 deed records linked to properties auctioned by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office between 1993 and 2018 uncovered a far more complex legacy. [MORE]