Advocates hope conference will spur city land bank into existence

Posted: September 06, 2013

THE STALEMATE over school funding isn't the only issue held up in City Hall.

For more than a year, legislation to establish a land bank - an agency that has the power to acquire and dispose of the city's 40,000 vacant properties - has stalled as City Council and the Nutter administration work behind the scenes to address concerns regarding its structure and Council's role in the process.

The issue comes up as the city prepares to host the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference, a three-day national conference that kicks off Monday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. It's expected to draw 800 attendees and will feature 50 sessions on topics including land banking, tax foreclosure, market-smart revitalization, technology innovations and green reuse strategies.

Advocates hope the conference will encourage local elected officials to make the long-discussed land bank a reality. Of the thousands of vacant properties, 10,000 are owned by one of four city agencies, each with different rules for property sales, making it difficult for buyers to purchase properties in a timely fashion. Maintaining those properties costs the city $20 million annually.

Those properties would be consolidated and transferred to the land bank, which would also have the authority to acquire private, vacant tax-delinquent properties long before they go through the lengthy sheriff's sale process.

"We're hoping the land bank gets a boost forward," said Bob Grossmann, director of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. "It has been on the back burner. I think this conference will aid the process."

Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez first sponsored land-bank legislation in February 2012 and then again in March.

The proposal took a back seat as Council dealt with a particularly busy budget season this spring with the Actual Value Initiative and the school-funding crisis but supporters say it's time to move ahead.

Michael Koonce, executive vice president of the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp., has been working on the land-bank proposal. He said the Nutter administration is supportive and waiting for Council to schedule a hearing on the matter.

Council President Darrell Clarke, who held a meeting with stakeholders yesterday, said there will be a hearing in the fall, although one has not yet been scheduled. (Both Nutter and Clarke are expected to participate in next week's conference.)

"We have some outstanding issues I anticipate will be discussed and resolved," said Clarke, who supports a land bank. "We have to work around issues about how a [land bank] gets established, paid for. . . . We're discussing stuff about acquisition. That costs money."

Sources say that one of the key sticking points is the role Council members will have in the sale process and that some members fear the proposal may infringe on the entrenched tradition of councilmanic prerogative.

"The councilmanic prerogative and authority over vacant land cannot be diminished," said Quinones-Sanchez, adding, "We just want to front-load the process."

Under her latest proposal, the land bank would consist of an 11-member board that would submit all proposed property transfers to a Vacant Property Review Committee, which would be made up of the 10 district Council members. The public would also have an opportunity to weigh in, a measure that supporters say creates more transparency.

Clarke said the current disposition process is already transparent since sales must go through Council. But he noted that the length of time it takes to purchase property - roughly 18 months - is the problem.

Sources also say the administration has concerns that the measure would require too many resources. The bill would require the land bank to develop a strategic plan for the acquisition and disposition of vacant property within six months, provide an analysis of the market conditions, map the vacant parcels and propose redevelopment goals.

Paul Chrystie, the spokesman for Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, said the requirements are not a major issue and that the city is prepared to discuss them in more detail with Council.

Overall, advocates remain optimistic there will be a land bank soon.

"There was a lot of work put in to strengthen the legislation," said Rick Sauer, executive director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corps. "We want to make sure we get an effective land bank."

On Twitter: @Jan_Ransom


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