Plan for a Philadelphia city land bank is taking steps forward

The 2300 block of Gerritt Street in Point Breeze includes three vacant houses. The city's lack of an efficient system for dealing with abandoned, tax-delinquent properties means such sites often remain festering for many years. In other cities, they would be cleared off within as little as a year.
The 2300 block of Gerritt Street in Point Breeze includes three vacant houses. The city's lack of an efficient system for dealing with abandoned, tax-delinquent properties means such sites often remain festering for many years. In other cities, they would be cleared off within as little as a year.
Posted: December 04, 2012

The dream of creating a central land bank to deal with Philadelphia's epidemic of vacant and abandoned properties has taken several key steps toward fruition in recent weeks.

After eight years of discussion, legislation sponsored by State Rep. John Taylor (R., Phila.) giving cities permission to establish land banks finally passed the General Assembly. Gov. Corbett signed the bill in October.

Since then, the Nutter administration has been moving to house a land bank within the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. (PHDC). The board there recently hired Michael Koonce, an expert in handling abandoned property, to be executive vice president.

Koonce and John Carpenter, deputy executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA), have been tasked with exploring how a land bank could work within the confines of PHDC.

Hurdles remain, including the passage of a bill in Council that would spell out the land bank's goals and priorities and describe how it would operate and be governed.

Council is likely to start considering the bill - the prime sponsor is Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez - in the new year.

For now, land bank advocates are cheering the momentum while keeping an eye on pivotal details.

"There's a real strong opportunity to do something that's going to dramatically change the way we deal with abandoned properties," said Rick Sauer, executive director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corps.

About 40,000 parcels are vacant in the city, concentrated in the city's poorest neighborhoods. Vacant and abandoned properties long have been blamed for dragging down neighborhood property values, spreading blight, and encouraging crime.

Dealing with the properties in any comprehensive way has been difficult because of diffuse ownership. About a quarter of the parcels are held by four agencies - PHDC, PRA, the city Department of Public Property, and the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA).

Each agency has its own rules and policies for disposing of parcels; some require them to be sold at market value.

The rest of the properties are in private hands - about 17,000 of them are tax delinquent, according to a 2010 consultant's report. In many cases, the properties have been vacant so long the listed owners are dead or virtually impossible to find.

Anyone wanting to assemble vacant parcels - developers, nonprofits, and even neighbors who want to start a community garden - have to navigate the maze of ownership.

About a decade ago, Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia needed three years to assemble 20 parcels in the 1800 block of North 18th Street - a project that eventually yielded 14 new houses.

Habitat is now looking at another area of vacant and abandoned homes around 19th and Norris Streets.

On one side of 19th Street, between Norris and Berks Streets, there is only one occupied house. The rest are vacant; eight are privately owned, the Public Property department owns seven, PHA owns six, and PHDC and PRA own three each.

"Again, looking at the property maps, you have that issue," said Jon Musselman, director of project planning for Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia Inc. "Without some coordinated effort in place, I could see this taking another three or four years."

That's where a land bank could bring some order to the chaos. Sánchez's bill calls for the city, PRA, and PHDC to transfer its properties to the land bank.

(It remains unclear how PHA, which is moving back from federal oversight to local control, would fit into the land bank picture).

A land bank also would be able to acquire tax-delinquent private property without going through a sheriff's sale.

It had been uncertain whether the Nutter administration, which was pursuing its own vacant-land strategy, would adopt a land bank.

In the last year, the administration created a master list of city-owned properties, available online, and set up PRA as the lead agency to dispose of vacant property.

"We always saw that as a first step in an evolutionary process," Carpenter said. "These are all tools we would simply adapt and make more effective with the land bank."

Sauer said that a land bank would need to balance competing interests for market-rate and affordable housing, and commercial and green space, and that the process of acquiring and disposing of land "needs to be predictable, accountable, and transparent."

He also said the land bank would need clear plans for swaths of vacant land, developed with the input of community groups and district City Council members.

The land bank also would need a governing board with a mix of expertise in housing issues, as well as community representation.


Contact Troy Graham at 215-854-2730, tgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @troyjgraham.

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