And she’s not alone. Neighbors in Flint, Mich., have complained of projects put into their land bank system, as well. Most notably the city’s Durant Hotel on East Second Avenue, had $30 million of taxpayer money put into it through the land bank and ended up being sold for $4 million. “There are no banks I know of that would have given that mortgage,” wrote real estate broker and Flint resident Henry Tannenbaum, in a February 2011 letter to The Flint Journal . “Taxpayers do not need more government control of the local housing stock, and taxpayers should not have to compete with their government in the purchase or rental of homes.”
“We absolutely believe the bill needs to be amended,” says Presley. “We think land is an asset that can be used to support the goals of strengthening low and moderate income communities … and I think the only way to fulfill those principles is to include a policy in the land bank ordinance that spells this out exclusively, that makes it clear and measurable.”
The Coalition has submitted language to Quiñones-Sánchez they believe would do this. She is open to the idea, but the bill has a long way to go before being signed into law. And recent developments may make residents think twice before letting it get pushed through as is.
Because, as Sawyer sees it, Kensington may have the most to lose from the deal. The neighborhood of West Kensington and the former “slumlord millionaire” Robert Coyle Sr., who was the subject of a Daily News investigation in 2009 and City Paper cover story in 2010, still lingers in the minds of residents.
“They [Coyle and his son] were able to run amok in Kensington and ruin a lot of people’s lives—well over 1,000 people,” says Sawyer. “And there is nothing in the Land Bank bill that prevents a renter like this, a bad actor who has no intention of redeveloping or improving the neighborhoods or, really, doing anything other than trying to make a fast buck.”
Coyle was finally charged on Friday with defrauding four banks out of $10 million in 2007.
Sawyer sent a letter to the Committee of Seventy expressing his concerns and has been attending community meetings in Port Richmond, Fishtown and Kensington, trying to get his questions answered. So far, he’s not satisfied.
Lang’s solution: “Try the simple method first … If there’s a property in North Philadelphia with $10,000 in back property taxes, well, seize it. Then let people buy it.”
If only it were that simple.
“The whole thing screams pay-to-play to me in multiple ways,” says Sawyer. “I do love the idea of a land bank. I know it’s been implemented in other cities … but the way machine politics work in Philadelphia, something good comes along and the city is ultimately determined to spend as much time fucking it up as it can.”
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.