The Ugly Truth About Philly's Vacant Lots

By Aaron Kase
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 10 | Posted Nov. 16, 2010

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Jon Musselman stands on the corner at 19th and Berks, just a few blocks west of Temple’s campus. “See up here—three city lots, two PHA lots, a couple of private lots,” he says, gesturing toward an open patch of land, choked with weeds and trash. Next to the vacant lots stands a single house, comically skinny. On the other side of the house, more open space all the way up the block to Norris.

The nearly empty block with its lone dwelling is just yards away from the Habitat for Humanity headquarters, where Musselman has worked for 15 years.

“Even though we’ve worked here all these years, there are still places like this we can’t do anything with,” he says. “It can be impossible to get everyone together to get a parcel that’s worthwhile to build on.”

Over the last 25 years, Habitat has built about 70 houses on the blocks surrounding its office, but the streets are still lined with nearly as many vacant lots as homes. Instead of families, the properties house broken glass, rubble and who knows what else buried in the morass.

About 40,000 vacant lots are spread across Philadelphia, like scabs festering on the city grid. According to a database provided by the city, more than 12,000 (see database below; addresses are grouped by ZIP code) are publicly owned, controlled by various agencies such as the Redevelopment Authority, Philadelphia Housing Authority, Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation and the city’s Public Property department. The privately owned vacant properties are the city’s problem, too, with owners frequently missing or dead, meaning the only way the land can be developed is through a sheriff’s sale or eminent-domain seizure. 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.

“This is almost an epidemic in Philadelphia,” says Carolyn Placke, director of housing and community development for Project HOME, which builds single and multi-family houses for people transitioning out of homelessness. “We’re faced with the complexities of acquiring land either privately, or through RDA, or through PHA.” Each method of acquisition is fraught with obstacles. “It makes it very difficult to transform or revitalize an area,” Placke says.

Below is a searchable list, grouped by ZIP code, of the city's 12,000 publicly owned vacant lots.

Cicely Peterson-Mangum, executive director of the 2-year-old Logan Community Development Corporation, says the group is just delving into the complicated task of land acquisition. The CDC is trying to purchase the notorious “Logan Triangle,” a 35-acre plot of land east of Broad Street that has been empty since the 1980s, to develop as a yet-to-be determined mix of housing, retail and open space. Like other empty spaces in the city, the Logan Triangle is a mix of city, PHA and privately owned land. It’s up to the city, “to assemble the land, clear title, satisfy the liens and consolidate it as one free-and-clear land tract,” Mangum says. “It could take years.”

The scale of the vacant-land issue was illuminated in an Econsult report released last week that sheds light on what the empty lots are actually costing Philadelphia. The 94-page report neatly sums up the city’s challenge: “No single entity is responsible for acquiring, assembling, and disposing of vacant parcels, or for thinking about the entire inventory of parcels and making strategic land use decisions.”

Blight can reduce property values by up to 20 percent, meaning Philadelphia is short some $3.6 billion in property value citywide, with the greatest impact hitting already poor and vulnerable neighborhoods. What’s more, the city needs to deploy services to maintain the lots, such as police, fire and the Department of Licenses & Inspections. “We estimate the cost very conservatively at $20 million per year,” says Econsult Director Lee Huang. Finally, there is a strong correlation between vacant parcels and those delinquent on their taxes. Of the 40,000 empty lots, the report found that about 17,000 are behind on their taxes, two thirds of those for more than 10 years. “We’re all losing,” Huang says.

If the city reforms the mechanisms for property acquisition in the next five years, it could expect to see 3,400 vacant parcels turned into housing, creating 800 construction jobs per year and adding $44 million to the property-tax base. In turn, the city would expect to see a $35 million boost to various tax revenues over the five-year period.

Those estimates might even be low, since the analysis focused on the few areas of the city where market values for housing actually exceed building costs, where private developers would expect to jump in. Nonprofit CDCs like Habitat and others who use tax breaks and grants to reduce costs and operate in areas where private builders would never see a profit would expect to benefit from a streamlined acquisition process as well. “This larger issue of how a reformed system would facilitate affordable housing is also critical,” says Rick Sauer, executive director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, which commissioned the Econsult report in conjunction with the RDA. “If the amount of time to assemble those sites is reduced, that will also lower cost of development and stretch scarce dollars to allow more units to be built.”

The PACDC has its own ideas about how the city can better facilitate development. “We need a single point of entry to the city, to allow a developer to submit one application to one agency and have the city assemble the site,” Sauer says.

The city is working on it. “We have a strategy on how to solve the problem but we don’t have a policy in place yet,” says Brian Abernathy, chief of staff to the city’s Managing Director’s Office. “That’s the goal.”

Fifteen city departments and agencies have been meeting since the summer to address vacant land, Abernathy says. First, they need a method to create one combined inventory, and to decide on how to streamline the sale process. “Are there instances where we’re comfortable disposing of a property at less than fair-market value and under what conditions?” he asks rhetorically.

Tax policy will also play a role. “Sheriff sales over the last several decades have been able to process about 100 properties a month,” Abernathy says. “Obviously that doesn’t give us the kind of numbers we need to clear up this backlog.” Better coordination with PHA is also a goal. “They’re part of the issue and have to be part of conversation,” Abernathy says.

Past efforts by the city to address vacant properties have met with only marginal success. The John Street-era Neighborhood Transformation Initiative was supposed to use $300 million to help the city acquire land when the owner was missing or negligent. Despite serious record-keeping flaws and management hiccups within the RDA, which was administering the program, the NTI funds did stimulate development up to a point, but there was never enough cash to go around. “We asked for 80 lots here and we got one,” Musselman says of the streets surrounding Habitat’s office.

Developers interviewed for this story credit former RDA Executive Director Terry Gillen for taking strides in cleaning up RDA record-keeping and placing properties for sale online in her two-year tenure, despite criticism that her rocky relationship with City Council caused delays on projects. Gillen’s departure two weeks ago leaves incoming Director Ed Covington with a huge task in front of him.

“With any new position, you look to get a handle simultaneously on the scope of the business and its activities,” says Covington, who came from a banking background and had spent five years in community lending for Wachovia, helping both for- and nonprofit developers acquire land parcels. Covington declines to offer his own vision of how to fix the city’s vacant land problem. “It’s a little early to be offering specifics,” he says.

However, Abernathy says that more news should be coming soon. “We’re hoping to make some high-level recommendations to the mayor at the beginning of January,” he says. As chairman of the RDA, Mayor Nutter has a special interest in finding a solution to the vacant land problem, but while his staff brainstorms, the developers can only wait and see. “Maybe I’m more optimistic than most people, but I see a lot of progress in the last two years,” Musselman says. However, he adds, “they’ve got a long way to go.”

Click here to download a copy of the entire spreadsheet from Google Docs.

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Comments 1 - 10 of 10
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1. Anonymous said... on Nov 16, 2010 at 11:25PM

“why is the market value on a property almost a million and then i see the sale price is like 1 or 4 dollars?? nice to know that government agencies can manipulate loopholes and pay no fair taxes on their real estate purchases but if i go buy something i get killed on taxes. way to go philly”

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2. Anonymous said... on Nov 22, 2010 at 07:06PM

“Walking through the Northeast, where I've lived for several years, this morning I again thought about how wonderful it is that we have all these beautiful overgrown lots in our city, and how important it is for us to keep these moments of nature in our sight. Not prepared parks of flat grass and trees (though those are important too), but spaces of spontaneity and growth, giving us relief from endless walls of construction and property, and a chance to look at the way our planet works beyond our interventions and domination of it. Even the accumulations of trash in the cauldrons of these vacant spaces can be food for thought for us as we pass through our neighborhoods. I was thinking how sad it is that my neighborhood will become slowly more gentrified, and the land more valuable, till all the lots are bought up, and those who live there are surrounded by nothing but brick and concrete and everything is owned.
This article seems obliviously one-sided.”

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3. truthrarelypure said... on Nov 23, 2010 at 12:04PM

“Um..I took a look at the list, looking for areas in my neighborhood. When I google mapped one of the addresses, it turns out it is my neighborhood playground. Another address is the transportation center. Maybe I'm just not understanding that list, but I don't believe a playground--that is still in use--should be classified as a vacant lot.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Nov 27, 2010 at 11:03PM

“Dear Philadelphia Weekly,

I am writing in regards to you’re article “The Ugly Truth About Philly’s Vacant Lots”.
My name is Emily “Birdie” Busch. You, as well as many other local publications, know me as a Philadelphia based musician. I grew up in Collingswood, NJ and have made Philadelphia my home since 2002. I am a college graduate and have been balancing my time between my livelihood of music and my work of waitressing. I have many friends, similarly, who are well educated, industrious, and extremely creative in areas as diverse as music, urban agriculture, and after-school programs for neighborhood youth. One has helped transform local ideas of what farming can be in a metropolis through high school community gardens. Another has spearheaded the Music and Mentorship program at the Intercultural Services Center, which allows kids (most without arts/music education programs at their schools) to come and study music, have instruments, and put on shows. There are also friends I have who have taken small business classes in an attempt to follow their dreams of opening a boutique hostel in Philadelphia to provide a niche and inspire travelers to consider Philly a worthwhile stop.

My point is that there are many civic-minded people here in this city who would support a program that offers affordable stewardship for the many vacant and abandoned places and therefore opens the door to transform what is laying to waste into vibrant locales. It is so frustrating that so many properties are rotting or sitting dead that could be restored. We are interested not in leveling existing structures or building in vacant lots, but bringing back to life the beautiful buildings still existing. When my friend tried to inquire about an old boarded up bar as a possibility for the hostel she couldn’t reach anyone. Urban legends that rung unfortunately true were passed along to her that the property which has been vacant for decades is privately owned and an exorbitant amount was being asked for it.

Now think of this example and multiply it by many more and still it will rest in a small pie slice of what is a huge number of vacant properties. If we want to consider this a modern, forward-thinking city we need to take action in a modern, forward-thinking way. We need to accept that within this recession (both nationally and locally) there is a young population who is educated, savvy, and passionate—that despite our wallets are contributing positively to Philadelphia through art, music, community services and more. And we will continue to do so.

For some of us it is the way with working in the fields of the arts that keep our salaries low, for others it has been extremely difficult to find jobs in their field and are working where they can find work. Different from the stereotypes of gentrification in which luxury condos and gated communities set up shop in lower class neighborhoods and “buzz” themselves into their gates, this is a group of people who want to be bound to our communities through our hands and hearts. Let us propose ideas for these unwanted properties, put in the work to restore them, and create something the city, its citizens and visitors, and our future generations can benefit from.

Without capital or the few and far between ‘angel investor’, we can’t buy properties for hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, perhaps these spaces could be rented from the city for a reasonable monthly amount in order to open doors and set things in motion. If not, why not move to the suburbs where we could find property (not as dilapidated with way more space) for a fraction of what these bungling beasts are going for? You get it?

That Philadelphia isn’t trying its hardest to hold on to these progressive, creative folks is a mistake that I, as well as all these friends, hate bearing witnesses to. Despite all that we are proud of within our community, it is an embarrassment and disappointment. I say this not only to local officials who don’t make it a priority but also to all the private owners who leave these places dormant and decaying, holding on for some future sale while the present is here in front of us.

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5. Anonymous said... on Mar 17, 2011 at 09:56AM

“(something about working in the arts, low salaries, difficulty finding work...) "Different from the stereotypes of gentrification in which luxury condos and gated communities set up shop in lower class neighborhoods"

Um, you should really do a little research about gentrification before using the word; especially since it is usually the creative class that starts the gentrification ball rolling.

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6. Want to be said... on Dec 16, 2011 at 09:19PM

“My big problem is , after you go tjrough all of the vacant properties listings and you find one/two that you like. Then what's next? How can someone find out how to get one of these lots? There's place to go after reading the listing. It would real help out if there was someone to call or an email to send your paperwork in to buy that lot at that price which you have just read. If you or someone knows how to go about this, then please let us/me know.
Thank you”

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7. Judith said... on Dec 26, 2011 at 11:28AM

“Hello, "Want to be said" please contact me @215-235-6517. I can assist you.

Who owns the parcel ? Based on that information ,there is an action plan to follow.
Contact me, I am the best in handling tangle titles,and or governmental agencies.
How can I assist you ?”

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8. Fendi said... on Jun 27, 2012 at 02:59PM

“how can i find a current list of vacant lots”

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9. Anonymous said... on Jun 17, 2013 at 11:50PM

“I brought a vacant lot at a sheriff sale today and I need help. Although I rode around the neighborhood before the auction I must have made a terrible oversight. It's very small, so small that even if I had the money to build, there is not enough space for a home. The neighboring house has used part of the space to house their ac unit. I need a home not a lot and I can't afford to lose my $2,000 deposit. I realize it's my mistake could you please put me in touch with someone who can help me. Thank you so much”

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10. Architect Herrera-Urban Planner said... on Mar 4, 2014 at 06:46PM

“This is 2014. I'm calling from the future. Nothing has changed. Philadelphia's management of lots has been sidetracked by "directors of this and that at the same agencies, and have achieved N o t h i n g. Now our councilpeople are using the lot issues to promote themselves. Its simple, all we need is one agency as stated by Rick Saaur in 2002. One single agency to develop the lots and develop a strategy...but you are being fooled by the agencies who are busy promoting themselves and delivering nothing”


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