A steady rain beats down at Sixth and Lehigh in North Philadelphia. Sitting inside a doughnut shop on the corner, Nashanta Robinson and Marcus Presley peer out the window at the dreary scene. “Might be hard to find people today,” Presley says. But they head out anyway, on a mission to educate and mobilize a neighborhood so blighted it’s frequently referred to as the Badlands.
As predicted, pedestrian traffic is sparse, but a few loiterers are out here and there. Robinson, 30 years old with newly dreaded hair protected under a red umbrella, flashes a glowing smile as she introduces herself to an old man leaning against a church. “We’re from the campaign to take back vacant land,” she says, passing him a flier explaining the group’s plan to pressure City Council candidates on land issues. The old man, ignoring the soaking rain, nods and signs a postcard pledging to vote on May 17.
The Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land is a coalition of local activist groups with a common goal of tackling Philadelphia’s immense property problem; a recent study found about 40,000 vacant lots in the city, the existence of which has lowered total property values by a cumulative $3.6 billion. Many of the parcels are owned by the city, but the process for acquiring them is complicated, to say the least. While City Hall is working to address the issue, the advocacy group is trying to help from a grass-roots level. “So many people are talking about vacant land,” says Presley, who at 28 rocks what one onlooker calls a ’70s look, big fro and beard. “We want to make sure communities have some control, too. We really want to give a voice to people who are concerned.”
To that end, Vacant Land wants to create a land bank—a quasi-public entity to hold and manage vacant land. Land banks are often compared to washing machines because they can clean and clear up debts and legal paperwork hanging over a deed so the community can get to work cleaning and clearing the physical property. Legislation to allow cities to create land banks is currently being considered at the state level, and the advocacy group is hoping it passes soon so Philly can get to work on one of its own. Conditions of the measure would be to reserve space for uses like parks and affordable housing, and give neighborhoods a voice in who gets the land and how it is developed.
Robinson lives nearby in affordable housing herself, so to her, improving the neighborhood is personal. “This is where my children live now,” she says. “There’s not a lot of safe places for them to play.” When her kids (3, 5 and 8) want to go outside, she drives them across town to the Smith Memorial Playground in Fairmount Park instead of letting them loose in the glass- and rubble-filled streets of Fairhill. Both she and Presley have experienced the ultimate in filthy indignity—a soiled mattress or two dumped in an empty lot on their respective blocks. “I wore two pairs of gloves pulling it out,” Presley says.
Continuing down Lehigh, the pair crosses Seventh Street. “Look at this building right here,” Presley says, pointing at the dark, looming mass of the abandoned Julia de Burgos school, missing windows and marred by graffiti. “People live around here and have to deal with the crime and the trash. I’ve heard stories about that place I can’t even repeat,” he says.
Farther up the street, a man in a gray hoodie standing under a gas station shelter says he already knows how to deal with unused lots. “Put some fence up, gate it up, take care of the land,” he says. “Put some day-care stuff in there, that’s a wrap!”
Presley cautions him, “I know people who have tended the lots in the same way you’re talking about, and the city comes in and snatches it out from under you.”
The man shrugs it off. “The city ain’t gonna get to it till we dead anyway,” he says. But he agrees to sign a pledge card.
“People definitely know what the problem is,” Robinson says. “They’re not so sure about what can be a solution.”
Among the diverse coalition comprising the Campaign To Take Back Vacant Land are the ActionAIDS group, the Women’s Community Revitalization Project, three different disabled-rights groups, the Human Rights Campaign and a janitors union. “Activist groups don’t have to worry about relationships with elected officials so they can be really pushy,” says Nora Lichtash, executive director of WCRP and an organizer for Vacant Land. Coalition members have been showing up to Council debate forums and meeting with candidates individually to spread their message. In a wide-open Council race, the activists have leverage to sway votes, so the candidates listen. “You push from the outside because you have the opportunity to get people to do what you want,” Lichtash says.
Several of those running for office have already signed on. “A land bank is the next logical step,” says First District Council candidate Jeff Hornstein, who pledged support to the cause. “I think it’s critically important in a city where we have 40,000 vacant lots.”
Hornstein says he recognizes the potential of the proposal. “You agree that [the land] be put in trust forever, held in a nonprofit to be used for community purposes, like a park, community garden, a playground, whatever,” he says. “It’s a tool used in many other places. This is not just pie in the sky stuff.” He entertains visions of using the land bank to create a green industrial park with windmills producing clean electricity on 250 acres of decaying Port Richmond land, at the site of a trashed and deserted old railroad bed.
Philadelphia, meanwhile, is still trying to figure out how best to unload its 12,000 or so unused publicly owned properties. City Hall is attempting to drain the bureaucratic swamp that prevents people from acquiring the land, but even a more streamlined sales process, if and when it should occur, is not enough, says Lichtash. “It’s not just about getting publicly held land out, but equitable development. And fairness,” she says. “The vision of fairness is not being discussed.”
The Nutter administration says a land bank is part of the conversation. “Everybody on the city’s side has agreed that long term, the land bank is ideal,” says Brian Abernathy, chief of staff to Managing Director Rich Negrin. “I think it will take a lot of work to get there but I think everybody recognizes that as the goal.” Abernathy says more details about the city’s plan to dispense land will be unveiled in upcoming weeks.
Back on the streets of North Philly, Robinson and Presley reach Broad Street as the rain picks up. They take shelter under the overhang of the subway stop and snatch passers-by to sign the cards.
One man expresses frustration at ongoing development further south, closer to Temple and the profitable opportunities for student housing its proximity allows. “Down at Norris and Berks? They buying up that land,” the man says. “We can’t get it.”
“That’s one reason we want to make sure the community has more control,” Robinson tells him gently.
After over an hour on the streets, the two activists have acquired eight cards signed by residents in support of their mission. Not the number they hoped for, but they aren’t discouraged. “Sometimes it’s easier going door to door, when you have a captive audience,” says Presley. “Still, not bad for a rainy day.”
The 40,000 abandoned properties, on which the city spends $20 million a year maintaining, results in a 6.5 to 20 percent resale value drop for homes on the same block. It’s an environmental, economical, domestic nightmare.
The RDA has moved 322 parcels since January 2009, but fighting between the agency and City Council has stalled progress.
More than 12,000 of Philly's vacant lots are publicly owned and controlled by various agencies. With parcels as thin as 15 feet wide, buying sufficient square footage for development from multiple city agencies is a near impossible challenge for which the city has yet to find a comprehensive solution.