Simply forestalling further deterioration of its massive holdings costs Philadelphia some $20 million annually. What’s more, widespread blight depresses Philadelphia property values by an estimated $3.6 billion. These eyesores also represent a huge proportion of Philadelphia’s tax delinquencies. And, in a time of fiscal crisis, they burden fire and police services that have already been stretched thin.
Mayor Nutter has been duly outraged about the Kensington fire, excoriating the property’s owners and urging a criminal investigation. City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez has proposed legislation that would require empty industrial buildings to be sealed with steel security panels to prevent trespassing.
While a tough, prosecutorial tone and more stringent safety measures are surely appropriate in the wake of such a disaster, a merely reactive approach will never amount to more than a Band-Aid on an epidemic. We need policies that will change the city’s physical, fiscal, and psychological landscape.
“Land bank” legislation proposed by Quiñones-Sánchez and Councilman Bill Green would allow the city to acquire tax-delinquent properties more rapidly, circumvent cumbersome sheriff’s sales, consolidate vacant real estate holdings, and provide for more fluid disposition to responsible developers, many of whom are eager to trade good money for bad property. However, as Patrick Kerkstra reported for PlanPhilly, the Nutter administration appears to prefer a less robust approach that wouldn’t address the city’s failure to deal with rampant property-tax delinquency. And both proposals would subject property sales to the political whims of district Council members.
In the days following the horrific Kensington fire, I had an opportunity to spend some time with the family of Lt. Neary. Amid grief, their foremost concern was that no other lives be lost in similar tragedies. City leaders seem to take this concern seriously, but we must urge them to work toward a solution to the broader problem of abandoned properties that has plagued Philadelphia for far too long.
When Neary’s and Sweeney’s names fade from the news cycle, as they are bound to do, it’s heartening to know that an impressive new memorial will commemorate their sacrifice. Ultimately, though, the most fitting tribute we can pay to the brave men and women who risk and sometimes lose their lives protecting our property is to make sure that property is worth protecting.
Ajay Raju is the managing partner of Reed Smith in Philadelphia. He can be reached at email@example.com.