Developers call city's Point Breeze eminent domain move a land grab

Posted: October 11, 2012

A BATTLE IS BREWING in Point Breeze between private developers and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, which plans to acquire dozens of properties through eminent domain to build affordable housing.

Private developers call it a "land grab" of properties that are being worked on or were recently purchased.

"Is this America?" asked Turlough Harte, a developer who just built two homes on Federal Street near 20th and who was hoping to soon begin construction on two vacant lots he's owned for several years on 17th street near Latona that he recently learned the city plans to take. "I said, 'They belong to me. Why do you need these lots when you have so many?' "

Tasked with eliminating blight, the authority received approval from its board over the summer to proceed with a plan to build affordable housing in the Point Breeze Urban Renewal Area, which was created in 1971 and is south of Washington Avenue to Morris Street, between Broad and 25th.

Nearly two weeks ago, City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, whose 2nd District includes the neighborhood, introduced legislation on behalf of the Nutter administration that would allow the authority to condemn 43 scattered lots in the area, 31 of which are privately owned and 12 of which are owned by the city. Fourteen of the properties are tax-delinquent, including seven with a balance of more than $1,000 in back taxes. A Council hearing on the plan has not been scheduled.

"It is unusual for [the] Redevelopment Authority to take property from developers who have work in progress," said John Kromer, senior consultant to the Fels Institute at the University of Pennsylvania and the former director of the city Office of Housing and Community Development.

Harte and other developers - including Ori Feibush, whose war with the city over a formerly trash-strewn lot made national headlines recently - received a notice from the authority in April about its plans.

"There's nothing unusual about this," said Paul Chrystie, authority spokesman. "The city supports sustainable, mixed-income neighborhoods, and the process of acquiring parcels to advance that goal is a common one. In Point Breeze the city is acquiring parcels as part of a strategy to preserve affordability in an appreciating neighborhood."

Nearly $1.7 million in acquisition costs will be paid through the city's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. The city will begin soliciting development proposals for the lots in January; $2 million in Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds will go toward initial development. The affordable-housing units will start at about $150,000.

A variation of the plan has existed since 2009, Chrystie said. Originally more than 90 properties were on the condemnation list, but that changed after owners came forward. Several of Feibush's properties were removed from the list, but he says he is representing developers whose properties are still in danger.

"Why spend millions to acquire lots that are scheduled for construction? Start with land you own. Don't take from private developers," Feibush said, noting that the city owns thousands of vacant properties around the city. "The city is trying to stifle development in this community."

He said the city is in a rush to move the plan forward because its ability to condemn properties by eminent domain expires at the end of the year. Chrystie said there will be changes to the law, but the authority will retain the power of eminent domain.

Feibush said he plans to fight the plan, contending it is driven by political pressure and connections, is illegal and disregards the private owners.

Johnson said that's not the case, but he is trying to achieve a balance of affordable and market-rate housing in the neighborhood, which contains many residents who are fearful that gentrification will make it too expensive to live there. He noted that the lots the city seeks to claim are near city-owned properties.

"We can't have 100 percent market rate," Johnson said. "We have to provide affordable housing to those individuals who are lifelong residents in the neighborhood, as well as new individuals who want to buy an affordable home that is based upon their income."

Point Breeze, a neighborhood near Center City with easy access to public transportation, is booming with development. Posh two- and three-story houses are popping up and selling for about $250,000, but some longtime residents like Patrina Jones, 68, who lives on Latona Street near 16th, are concerned about taxes increasing.

"I would like to stay here," said Jones, who paid $3,000 for her home decades ago and now has a new three-story house next door. Jones' taxes have increased by $134 within three years due to tax hikes. "I'm going to [sell my house]. I can't afford it with my income. They're pushing us out."

Neighborhoods that have had spikes in development could be hit hard should Council implement Mayor Nutter's planned shift next year to a new property-tax system based on market values, also known as the Actual Value Initiative (AVI).

"There's enormous appeal for new development," said private developer Sean Schellenger, owner of Streamline Solutions. "At the same time, the people who lived here for decades, who voted for Councilman Johnson, expect to be taken care of."


Contact Jan Ransom at ransomj@phillynews.com

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