It's time Council dealt with Philly's vacant-land crisis

Posted: April 26, 2013

IT'S BEEN A YEAR since the deaths of fire Lt. Robert Neary and Firefighter Daniel Sweeney.

The Philadelphia heroes died fighting a massive inferno at the Buck Hosiery building, a vacant property that had racked up numerous back taxes and citations before catching fire.

The building was one of 40,000 vacant parcels crippling our neighborhoods, dragging down property values and endangering lives. A quarter of vacant parcels are owned by city-related agencies; the rest are in private hands, and many of those, like the Buck building, are tax-delinquent-which makes them ultimately destined for city ownership.

In the year since the fire tragedy, the city still has only taken stop-gap measures in reducing the large amount of vacant land.

The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority's recent "front-door" initiative to deal with the vacant-land crisis has been a solid stop-gap measure, but not much more. The online "front door" (phillylandworks.org) has at least created a single entry point for people to buy property from some of the numerous city agencies that own them, but it has done little to systemize the often conflicting procedures each agency uses to sell properties. Since it kicked off last year, the city has sold only 133 vacant properties.

Meanwhile, legislation by Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez that would take a real swipe at the issue has been languishing for over a year. She introduced a set of bills in 2012 and again last month that would create a land bank, putting a single authority in charge of the acquisition, maintenance and sale of all publicly-owned vacant properties.

A land bank is long overdue. It's now far too onerous and confusing for residents to buy vacant parcels to regain control of their neighborhoods. A land bank would make it easier by simply putting all the city's land under one roof.

A land bank could also return more properties to the tax rolls, which is something that the city and school district desperately need. They are owed more than a half-billion dollars in property-tax bills.

Furthermore, if a land bank is fruitful, the city could save up to the $20 million a year it spends maintaining vacant land.

Right now, Council members hold a fair amount of power over the lots in their districts. The land-bank bills would still maintain Council members' ability to reject the proposed sale of city-owned properties, as long as they explain why. But it would force Council to act more quickly and transparently than its used to.

We hate the thought that this could be the reason the land-bank legislation hasn't moved yet.

Some fear that by consolidating the function of several agencies, some city employees might lose their jobs. But the land bank will need staff, which could come from those agencies.

There may be another reason the bills are stuck. The Actual Value Initiative is practically sucking all the air out of Council's chambers this year. Undoubtedly, the property-tax overhaul is a gargantuan task that should be studied thoroughly. But surely Council can perform more than one trick per session.

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