It was a sunny Tuesday morning and field evaluator Monica Pierce was walking along North Marshall Street with a measuring wheel and a clipboard full of summary reports on each parcel stretching up both sides of the street in the Ludlow section of the city.
Glancing at her clipboard, Pierce stared, puzzled at two houses numbered 1607 and 1609.
“I don’t have these properties on my records,” she said, rolling her measuring wheel along the front of the houses.
She rolled the measuring wheel along the front of the building and then, knowing the depth of each lot, multiplied for the area of each floor and then multiplied again for each of the three floors to come up with the total square footage.
It’s no surprise that records for the houses don’t exist, she said. “This area is mixed with PHA properties,” Pierce said. “We don’t always get the same reports from PHA.”
Pierce is one of 45 field evaluators on the streets of Philadelphia — the foot soldiers in a sweeping reassessment campaign as the city moves toward full valuation for the basis of its property taxes.
There are about 577,000 parcels in the city, said Chief Assessment Officer Richie McKeithen, about 426,000 of those are houses, 25,000 are condominiums. Evaluators will be going door to door until April gathering information on each parcel.
This particular stretch of North Marshall Street looks like a smile in need of a dentist.
Vacant lots leave gaps between crumbling houses, aging architectural gems, the traditional brick with buff siding of housing authority developments and sparkling new homes built by private developers.
All of which combine to make Pierce’s job a difficult one.
“We let the property tell us things about itself,” she said as she walked north, noting that one place, which appeared to be a single-family residence, had two mailboxes.
She left a flyer with several questions on the door, hoping the owner or tenant would respond with information like how many bedrooms, bathrooms and amenities such as central air conditioning the property had.
A neighbor helped Pierce by explaining that the house, which adjoined hers, was not identical. It was larger, she told Pierce but had two bathrooms rather that the two and half in her house.
Pierce made a note and continued walking.
“Usually older homeowners will talk to you,” she said.
As she talked, a maroon Crown Victoria, its stereo blasting through tinted windows, slowly circled the block for the fourth time.
“A lot of young guys want to know if I’m a cop,” she said.
Evaluators are looking for anything that makes a place stand out. At one house, a fortress-like residence with a full porch wrapped in bars, Pierce noted the for sale sign on the gate. She would probably be able to find it listed online and get very accurate information for assessment records.
Many of the houses on the street lack house numbers, which complicated Pierce’s job. Usually, it’s easy to simply fill in the blank but in one case two houses separated by one vacant lot were four digits apart.
“This is a big problem with us,” McKeithen said. “We’re trying to match a value with an address.”
Occasionally Pierce is forced to draw a quick sketch and go back to the office to piece together addresses.
“I find myself doing a lot of research,” she said, noting the more established areas of the city were easier to assess because houses were typically more uniform.
Properties are rated on a scale of 2 to 7 — with 2 being new or very well maintained and 7 being boarded up or unoccupied.
Assessors are also allowed to create their own code for special cases.
One property in the 1600 block was specially coded. Three men sat on the stoop, an air conditioning unit dangled drunkenly from a front window, but it was evident from the street that many windows along the side of the house were broken out or boarded up.
“What’s this for?” one of the men asked gruffly.
“We’re just assessing properties,” answered McKeithen.
“Let me get out of here,” said one of the three, quickly walking north.
Pierce knocked on the door of the house next door.
“He just left out of here,” said another of the men, jerking his thumb at the back of the other man as he disappeared around the corner.
“Are these PHA?” she asked.
One of the men nodded his head, affirming that it was.
Pierce moved on.
“I’ve been trying to get a sit-down with them,” said McKeithen, talking about PHA. “A lot of city agencies don’t communicate. We need to come up with a system that benefits all of us.”
At the end of the three-block stretch, Pierce had evaluated about 26 properties but had more work to do back at the office, researching PHA and other records to put together a complete picture of the area.
“The research in the office is as important as the work we do out here,” McKeithen said.
Pierce will be looking at an estimated 2,500 properties in Ludlow. She’s six weeks into her task and about halfway done.
McKeithen said the city eventually hopes to have a photograph of each property and have all of its information online. McKeithen stressed that his office’s goal to is assess each property “as fairly as possible” and noted that City Council will set the new tax rates, which determine what residents pay in property taxes, early next spring.
City officials expect full valuation to yield about 20 percent more revenue, pushing property tax revenues up to $1.2 billion from the $1 billion collected this year.
Each field evaluator carries a city identification badge. Homeowners with questions can call 311 to verify that the person at their door is from the Office of Property Assessment.