Inquirer Editorial: Cleaning up deadbeat city

A boarded-up rowhouse and a neighboring home on Christian Street.
A boarded-up rowhouse and a neighboring home on Christian Street. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 13, 2013

Philadelphia's property-tax delinquents range from out-of-town speculators to struggling homeowners, so it will take a variety of strategies to make them pay up. A handful of current proposals could help.

A special report by The Inquirer and PlanPhilly shows that most of the city's deadbeats - 59 percent - are not owner-occupants. Many live in tony suburbs and don't mind dumping their bad business decisions on the city.

One promising response is a bill by State Rep. Cherelle Parker (D., Phila.) allowing the city to file liens against deadbeats' suburban properties. They may not care about Philadelphia, but maybe they will care about their own homes. The city might even collect the $2.9 million owed to it by folks in Huntingdon Valley, or the $2.1 million owed by those in Bala Cynwyd. House Urban Affairs Committee Chairman Keith Gillespie (R., York) should schedule hearings on the legislation.

The city hesitates to foreclose on properties in neighborhoods where the real estate market will make it difficult to resell them. But a bill by Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez would create a land bank to help the city hold on to judgments against deadbeats without becoming the actual owner of their properties. The city can enforce the judgments when it or a qualified developer has a use for a property.

Philadelphia shouldn't move to confiscate all of its 100,000 delinquent properties, especially since many are worthless. But it can no longer let chronic deadbeats get away with robbing the city and schools of revenue while responsible taxpayers make up the difference. Starting a land bank to hold property taken away from such callous speculators is an idea that has waited too long.

The land bank legislation could be complemented by Council President Darrell L. Clarke's bills to create development districts in distressed areas and target the city's 40,000 vacant properties, about half of which are privately owned and tax-delinquent. He would allow the city to quickly transfer land to qualified developers who could return it to productive use. Clarke also supports incentives such as flexible zoning and expedited permitting for projects that would make housing available to low- and moderate-income residents.

A bill sponsored by Council members Bill Green, Curtis Jones Jr., and Sánchez could improve collections with stronger enforcement measures, including definite foreclosure deadlines for chronic deadbeats and facilitated payment plans for struggling homeowners. The Nutter administration, meanwhile, has pledged a long-awaited $40 million overhaul of the tax-collection system.

Philadelphia needs a targeted enforcement program that collects unpaid taxes, takes property away from chronic delinquents, and encourages redevelopment. If serious cooperation among city and state officials continues, the city can begin to break free of its self-destructive deadbeat culture.


Chat live with the author of the Inquirer-PlanPhilly series on tax delinquency, Patrick Kerkstra, at noon today at philly.com.

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