On Monday March 22nd, six members of Allentown City Council held a news conference in front of a distressed apartment building and declared war on slumlords. For many of Allentown’s most vulnerable renters the event represented a much needed prioritization of an issue that’s been dogging Allentown for years. But it wasn’t the first time an alleged slumlord has been publicly shamed in front of his own property, and if the past is prologue, we should all watch what happens next very, very carefully.
In 2008, Mayor Ed Pawlowski held a news conference at 343 and 345 N Ninth St, and publicly accused the owner, a man named Adam Thor, of being a slumlord. Pawlowski publicly added Thor’s name to the Landlords Hall of Shame. Remarkably, those properties would eventually be purchased by the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Allentown (RACA) in 2009 for a combined $191,000 and sold to Christian Brown, a member of the City of Allentown City Planning commission for $500 each. Mr. Thor sold the properties to RACA at the urging of The Old Allentown Preservation Association (OAPA), a non-profit of which Christian Brown was a board member at the time. In a letter dated Oct 18th, 2008, OAPA encouraged Thor to sell his homes to RACA so they could be converted into “single family owner occupied homes”. That letter was signed by a man named James Villaume who also served on the Allentown Planning Commission and the Blighted Property Review Committee.
According to Transaction Detail Reports, during a period of roughly 5 year when the properties were being held by RACA, the City of Allentown spent thousands of dollars on trash removal, insurance and roof repairs to the properties. During that same time period Christian Brown was appointed to the Allentown planning commission by Ed Pawlowski and played a crucial role as an ally in implementing Pawlowski’s downtown redevelopment agenda.
In July 2013, RACA discussed 4 properties they were selling using an RFP process- 330 N 9th, 340 1/2 N 9th, 343 N 9th and 345 N 9th. The RFP’s included a minimum bid of $10,000 or best offer. Ultimately two of those properties were sold to Habitat for Humanity for $10,001, and the other two were sold to Christian Brown for $1,000. Despite Habitat for Humanity's mission statement being in line with what the goals of the Redevelopment Authority, they were charged 10 times more than Christian Brown for two similar houses on the same block.
Adam Thor maintains that his homes were not blighted, and that at the time of Pawlowski's press conference he was in the process of fixing them up. It may be too late now to determine the state the properties were in at the time of the acquisition. However I did find minutes from a June 14, 2014 meeting in which RACA members discussed their activities being integrated into the city, and the city trying to get RACA to condemn a property that was not blighted. In that meeting RACA attorney C. Collins Brown described that the process of integrating RACA into the city had begun the previous August. This indicates that the sale of 343 and 345 N 9th St to Christian Brown, who was a city planner at the time, was illegal. PA Urban Development Law states- “No member or employee of an Authority shall acquire any interest, direct or indirect, in any redevelopment project or in any property included or planned to be included in any redevelopment area”. It seems Mr Brown should have never been eligible to receive RACA property, because he was an official of the city, which was co-managing RACA.
There is also evidence that Christian Brown had been planning to buy 343 and 345 N 9th St for years before he ultimately closed on the deal. 343 and 345 N 9th are row homes that share a wall with 347 North 9th St. In November of 2008, A few months before Mr. Thor would sell both his properties to RACA, Christian Brown purchased 347 N 9th St for $40,000 more than its previous owner had paid for it just three years earlier. Nationally, that November, the median price of a home had fallen 13 percent, the sharpest decline in the previous 4 decades. Records show that the house was never listed on the MLS, which could indicate that Mr. Brown may have approached the owner with an off-market offer. The details of this transition make sense when you consider that Christian Brown, as a board member of OAPA was intimately aware of, and in-fact directly involved in the redevelopment of N. 9th St.
After purchasing the homes, the Upside Allentown Physical Improvements Sub-Committee Awarded Christian Brown with a facade grant to purchase new historically appropriate windows for his properties. Christian Brown was a member of that Sub-Committee as well.
Today, as a member of the Allentown Planning Commission, Christian Brown continues to vote on matters pertaining to blighted properties. Every one of those properties represents a potential financial windfall for City of Allentown Officials, including Brown himself. The same logic that Christian Brown used to justify buying his second and third houses from the Redevelopment Authority could just as easily be applied to a third and fourth house.
On April 28th 2020 Christian Brown’s life and business partner Angie Johnson published plans on Facebook to turn all three homes into one large urban villa, complete with a swimming pool and bar. Angie Johnson has also worked for the City of Allentown.
Blogger's Note: To be fair, I emailed Christian Brown about this story and also called his office and advised that I wished to speak to him concerning this deal. If he does reply, I will publish what he says.
8 am update: Blogger Michael Molovinsky's story about this property, before it was bought by an insider for pennies on the dollar, is located here.