We’ve been hearing about it for the better part of a year: Philadelphia’s urban landscape isn’t much more than 40,000 shelled-out houses, dumping grounds, alley cat villages and overgrown drug lots that have been taken over by four apathetic city agencies. Those 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.
But City Hall is on the case. In early February, Councilmembers Bill Green, Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, Bobby Henon and Curtis Jones Jr. introduced Bill No. 12005200, which would put all those city-owned properties under the supervision of just one body, the Philadelphia Land Bank—a semi-public entity that would manage the city’s vacant lots and houses through leasing, selling and community maintenance projects. A Mayor Nutter-appointed board, comprised of government and civic leaders, would oversee the process.
The idea was pushed over the last several years by the Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land—a coalition of 30 nonprofits and civic associations—and is being marketed as a win-win for the government, communities and citizens.
“A central city agency that would take all the city-owned vacant land and put it in one place would solve the problem of having this alphabet soup of city agencies owning land right now,” says Marcus Presley, a community organizer with the Women’s Revitalization Project, one of the 30 nonprofits involved with the bill. The agency, he says, could “really prioritize uses that benefit community residents, spelling out what the priorities would be … with a real lens toward urban agriculture and community control over the land in the city.”
Well, hold on a second here.
Some activists, citing the bill itself and the city’s history of corruption in the property business, are worried that creating a new city agency will just lead to more problems.
“It’s centered around property, and that’s a really sore subject for me,” says East Kensington anti-blight activist Christopher Sawyer. “The city has done a 360-degree fail when it comes to anything remotely related to property. Zoning, property tax collection, use of properties, you name it.”
Sawyer and others, like Brewerytown-Sharswood Community Development Corporation board member Adam Lang, are taking the land bank proposal with a scoop of cynicism. Not because they’re necessarily against land banks—they’re just against this one. They believe the combination of the city-state effort is an epic fail in the making. And decades from now, they say, our property blight problem may be even worse than it is today.
“The land bank isn’t designed to actually circulate stuff back into the private holding,” says Lang, who believes the agency could be used for nefarious purposes and possibly result in a pay-to-play-type situation with City Council. “One of the reasons why a lot of this land already remains vacant is because the government won’t let it back into circulation. So, the idea that the way to solve that is to throw another, bigger, more expanded government agency on top of it to solve the failures of the original government’s goals? That doesn’t make much sense.” (Philadelphia’s vacant properties are currently held in the Redevelopment Authority, Philadelphia Housing Authority, Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation, and the city’s Public Property department.)
Lang says places in which land banks have proven successful—and Council has used as examples of why Philadelphia needs one—are places in which there is a decreasing private demand for land. Lansing, Mich.’s landbank is considered a success. However, Lansing’s population—and by extension, landowners—have been declining over the past decade, losing 4 percent of its population in the last census. “Philadelphia doesn’t have a lack of private investors,” Lang says. On the contrary, Philadelphia’s population, and demand for real estate, has grown over the past decade.
Sawyer and Lang are both concerned about the City Council veto power in the legislation. According to Section 4 of the bill, City Councilmembers representing the district in which a vacant property will be transacted have final say. If that Councilmember sees any reason for disapproval, all s/he has to do is put it in writing and “the Land Bank may not enter into the transaction,” reads the legislation.
“Say there’s a situation where you ran against a person or donated to his competition,” says Lang, who is currently running as a Republican presidential delegate in the Pennsylvania’s Second Congressional district, “or any other reason why someone in that particular office doesn’t like you. They can prevent you from ever purchasing land in the land bank as long as they’re in office.”
The bill essentially doesn’t put extra safeguards into place for things like pay-to-play; things that make Philly, well, Philly. The city was recently ranked the eighth most corrupt city in the country by researchers at the University of Chicago, based on public corruption convictions between 1976 and 2010.
“How hard or soft that councilmanic vote or veto is, is an open question,” says Jennifer Kates, legislative aide to Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who helped draft the original bill. “We hope this will get refined as we continue to talk with people, and if people feel strongly [they] should come out and testify and come out and talk.”
At a recent meeting between Quiñones- Sánchez and the Coalition to Take Back Vacant Land, the councilwoman noted there’s a political reality that has to be dealt with, referring to the veto power.
Luckily, there’s time to amend. The local bill can and only will be enacted after state legislation is signed into law allowing it to exist. That legislation, House Bill 1682, has been introduced by state Rep. John Taylor of lower Northeast Philadelphia. It was recently passed on Feb. 15—though has not yet been signed into law by Gov. Corbett. Quiñones-Sánchez’s office is writing a separate bill in case Corbett decides to sit on it forever. That bill would put the land bank bill up for a citywide ballot vote.
Patti Gouvas, an Atlanta, Ga., resident, says Philly should think long and hard about the land bank. She found an earlier story on land banks posted to our news blog and had to tell us her experience with her city’s land bank.
“It’s the worst idea ever,” she says over the phone. “If your city is not corrupt, it might be a good thing. But here, it’s an absolute nightmare.”
Gouvas claims a politically connected man whose name PW has withheld due to the nature of Gouvas’ allegations—and that they are only allegations—who owns multiple properties across the Georgia metropolis, has been property squatting across the city, not paying taxes and rebuying the properties back from the land bank. “Every agency in Atlanta is aware of it,” she says. “Every agency is passing the buck, so now I’m at the point of where I’m going in circles.”
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. Many of the parcels are owned by the city, but the process for acquiring them is complicated, to say the least.
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.
The RDA has moved 322 parcels since January 2009, but fighting between the agency and City Council has stalled progress.