Real estate mess leaves church fighting eviction

March 16, 2011 9:14:14 PM PDT
There's only one way to describe this: it's a mess.

A real estate mess that a North Philadelphia congregation says was created at City Hall, leaving them holding the bag and about to be evicted from the very church they built.

"I don't want people to think that I'm just going to lay down and go away, because I'm going to be the thorn in your flesh until you straighten it out," Pastor Arlene Mills of Celestial Ministries said.

Pastor Mills, a long time minister and community activist in North Philadelphia, is the epitome of the little guy trying to fight City Hall.

Back in 2004, her congregation purchased an abandoned and dilapidated property at a sheriff's sale to build their new church. They paid $15,000 for a property that was listed in City Hall records as multiple properties on one deed which were known as 2808, 10, 12 and 2814 West Thompson, also known as 1257 North Newkirk, an adjacent row home behind the Thompson properties.

But when they received their deed in the mail, it only listed 2808 West Thompson, not the rest. So they went to the sheriff's office to find out happened.

"And [Real Estate Supervisor] Crystal Stewart said, 'We didn't have anything to worry about because the entire property was known as 2808 West Thompson.' I said, 'That's foolishness, I want my deed to read like that old deed.'"

Mills thought the matter would be rectified, but, in fact, her nightmare began when a developer with Elser Properties came knocking at the church door saying he now owns the building and wants them out. They went to court:

"The judge asks the opposing parties, 'Can't you work this out?' and his lawyer said, 'We want ejectment,'" Mills said.

The new sheriff's administration explains the mess this way:

"It's a mix-up going way back when in the city records," Chief Deputy Joe Vignola said.

Vignola says apparently, at some point, the tax ID number for the property on Newkirk became separated from the other properties and tax due notices sent to the abandoned row home. Notices that church officials say they never saw and when the taxes weren't paid, the properties were once again sold at a sheriff's auction for $3,100.

Despite the snafu, a court ruled Elser Properties as the rightful owner and issued an eviction order that is due to take place tomorrow at 11:00 a.m.

"It's just confusion and I hope and so does Sheriff [Barbara] Deeley hope someone could step in and intervene," Vignola said.

The lawyer for the developer told Action News he doesn't talk to the media.

A new lawyer for the church, John Marshall, says he plans to file an 11th hour plea in court Thursday seeking a stay to prevent the eviction until he can explain to the court what happened.