The first thing that needs to be addressed is what the Land Bank actually is. The Land Bank is commonly referred to as a new agency that will consolidate government-owned and -acquired property into a single agency to make it easier for people to find and purchase land. While this is technically true, it is only a fraction of its powers and oversimplifies the purchasing process.
Let's list some of the powers of the Land Bank. For starters, it can "design, develop, construct, demolish, reconstruct, rehabilitate, renovate, relocate and otherwise improve" the property it holds. And how does it pay to do a lot of that work? By its power to "borrow from Federal Government funds, from the Commonwealth, from private lenders or from municipalities," and to "issue negotiable revenue bonds and notes."
So, the Land Bank acquires city property, takes out debt and then fixes it up to sell? Not necessarily. The Land Bank isn't under any obligation to sell property it holds. It can rent and lease properties it acquires. On top of it, if it rents to a private entity, property taxes aren't paid unless it is leased continuously for five consecutive years. The Land Bank itself doesn't pay into any state or local taxes either.
Now, let's go into what happens in the actual purchase process. Even if the Land Bank wanted to sell property it has, it isn't as straightforward as it is made out to be. The board that is appointed (which will have members of organizations that will be looking to acquire land required to be seated on it) can say yes or no; the purchases are not over-the-counter. On top of that, if the Board does approve a purchase, "the district Councilperson shall be given the opportunity to review the transaction. Upon receiving a reason in writing for any disapproval by the district Councilperson, the Land Bank may not enter into the transaction."
The legislation is actually codifying "pay to play." If you didn't donate enough to a Council member (or, God forbid, donated to his opponent), he can prevent you from ever acquiring land as long as he is in office. It should bother people that a single member of Council would be able to block the sale of property without a Council vote. It's interesting that in the city where the constitution was born such a gross violation of separation of powers exists.
In addition, the Land Bank doesn't have to sell land at market rate. If the board has a for-profit company wanting a piece of land and a nonprofit that does, too, the Board can choose to give the land at a reduced rate to the nonprofit if it simply likes better what they will do with it, even if the other group will pay more for it.
In essence, what is being proposed is a government-run real-estate company. Sort of like taking PREIT or Liberty Development Corporation and running it like the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
The state-level legislation was set up to mimic the Land Bank legislation in Michigan's Genesee County, which has been reported to work well. The problem is that Flint, Mich., is not similar to Philadelphia. Flint is currently half the population of its peak and suffered another 20 percent loss of its population from the last census. On the reverse, Philadelphia has grown population and sees evidence every day of where people are willing to invest private money into redevelopment here. One is a city still in decline and the other is a city people want to be part of.
What's the solution? While that can encompass a full article in and of itself, the simple answer is to streamline the process to get vacant properties quickly back into private circulation and ruthlessly enforce blight, quality-of-life and tax laws. For once, try the simple method to make it easy for private developers, residents and nonprofits to acquire land in a transparent, fair and nonpolitical process.
Adam Lang lives in North Philadelphia and is a community activist who fights for open and ethical government in Philadelphia. He is also a candidate for delegate to the Republican National Convention in the 2012 primary election.