40,000 city properties. Abandoned. Now what?

Where Rocky lived (top) in the 1976 movie - on Tusculum Street near Kensington Avenue - is viewed through the window of an abandoned house across the street. Rep. John Taylor stands outside a vacant house on Livingston Street near Indiana Avenue, in his Port Richmond district.
Where Rocky lived (top) in the 1976 movie - on Tusculum Street near Kensington Avenue - is viewed through the window of an abandoned house across the street. Rep. John Taylor stands outside a vacant house on Livingston Street near Indiana Avenue, in his Port Richmond district.
Posted: July 28, 2010

EVEN ROCKY'S block isn't immune from Philadelphia's ongoing abandoned-property problem.

On Tusculum Street, near Kensington Avenue, which includes the house featured as the boxer's home in the film "Rocky," neighbors are furious over an abandoned house that attracts drug-addicted squatters.

"We kept going in and boarding it up, but they keep knocking it down," said longtime resident Pat Aird, who said the neighbors have appealed to numerous city agencies without success.

It's a common complaint in Philadelphia. Despite aggressive anti-blight programs over the years, including hundreds of millions of dollars spent on former Mayor John Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, vast stretches of city land remain abandoned - about 40,000 vacant or abandoned properties.

"We're largely dealing with the same problems we were dealing with before NTI," said Mark Alan Hughes, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who previously served as Mayor Nutter's sustainability director.

Under Street, the city threw $296 million in bond money at the problem, with plans to tear down crumbling buildings, package cleared lots together and get them to developers. Street's administration reduced the number of blighted buildings and encouraged development, but critics noted that it fell far short of his goal to demolish 14,000 buildings.

"I think it was the right issue," Hughes said. "It was a really bold attempt. They raised a lot of money." But ultimately, he said, the program was less effective than expected.

Even when the city knows of a problem, it isn't easy to fix.

The house on Rocky's block is a good example. The Department of Licenses and Inspections has received three complaints in the past year about the house on East Tusculum Street. But L&I did not find the house to be structurally dangerous.

Because the house is privately owned, all L&I can do is cite the owner for maintenance violations. The city could demolish the property only if it was in danger of collapsing, said L&I Deputy Commissioner Bridget Collins-Greenwood. Still, Collins-Greenwood said they would check the building again to ensure it is structurally sound.

And so the issue remains. Compounding the problem is that only about 30 percent of the abandoned properties across the city are publicly owned, and those are owned by one agency or another. The rest are privately held and frequently owe back taxes. Sometimes they go to sheriff's sale, but often they just decay.

Finding a solution

Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Terry Gillen said that a city working group is currently reviewing how Philly could better deal with abandoned and tax-delinquent properties.

One success story they have been studying is Flint, Mich. Devastated by the closing of General Motors auto plants, Flint's population has plummeted from 200,000 to just more than 100,000 in the past 50 years, leaving massive stretches of empty land.

In Genesee County, home to Flint, the government set up a land bank, which takes control of abandoned and tax-foreclosed properties and decides the best usage for the city - be it to sell to a developer, give to a community group or maintain the land itself.

The advantage, said former Genesee County Treasurer Dan Kildee, is that the county can decide strategically how to use properties, instead of selling them at sheriff's sale to speculative developers who may not improve the sites.

"Every house on the block has their value affected by how we treat the abandoned houses," said Kildee, now president of the Center for Community Progress, a nonprofit agency that tries to educate communities about land management.

The land-bank system has led to renewed downtown investment in Flint, as well as community gardens in neighborhoods. Other municipalities are now considering the program.

In Pennsylvania, state Rep. John Taylor, who represents Port Richmond, has sponsored legislation that would give local municipalities the right to establish land banks that could acquire land for development. The bill recently passed in the state House and must now get approval from the Senate.

"You could acquire [properties] in bulk and sell them in bulk," Taylor said. "And make the buyer comply with a plan."

Setting land-use priorities

Gillen stressed that a key piece of any new land program, whether a land bank or not, must be deciding what the city's priorities are for abandoned properties. She also said the administration was committed to protecting homeowners.

"I think we've got to talk about what land-use priorities are," said Gillen, who stressed that the city has not yet decided the next move. "Is it a priority to give land to people who operate homeless shelters? Is it a priority to give land to people who develop jobs?"

Another part of that conversation has to be about what scale the city should be.

Philadelphia hasn't suffered the same population loss as Flint - where much of the abandoned land is being converted into gardens and open space. But Philly's population has dropped from just more than 2 million in 1950 to about 1.5 million now. Yet the city's 1960 comprehensive plan was based on the notion that the number of residents would grow to 2.5 million.

"The city is much smaller than it was built for," Hughes said. "There are huge amounts of city that it doesn't make sense to build on. We don't need this physical city to be capable of housing 2.5 million people any more."

And some experts stressed that while a land bank might be a helpful tool to improve vacant-land management, it won't suddenly make all these properties desirable to investors.

"The overwhelming majority of the properties that get registered to a land bank, there's going to be no buyer for that," Hughes said. "The vast majority of parcels that enter the land bank, it's not going to be selling the land, it's going to be managing them while vacant."

Still, former City Housing Director John Kromer said now is a good time for the city to get property plans in place, before the economy rebounds.

"One important thing to remember about vacant properties is, as we emerge out of the recession, more and more people are going to realize how valuable they are," Kromer said. "I think it means that investors and developers that previously hadn't looked at Philadelphia would take another look."

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