Quiñones-Sánchez's long trek to land bank for Phila.

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez
Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez
Posted: December 17, 2013

Pictures of vacant lots fill a binder in the office of Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez.

When she was elected in 2008 to represent the Seventh District, the poorest and most blighted in the city, residents would write in and plead for a deed transfer for vacant parcels.

The system was chaotic. Lots that were supposed to be urban gardens were often illegal parking spots. In one case - the proof is in the binder - someone built a shack.

"People are living there!" Quiñones-Sánchez said last week, still incredulous over what happened on the 2900 block of North Front Street.

The fruit of that frustration is Quiñones-Sánchez's land-bank legislation, designed to replace a broken system for transferring city-owned land with one designed to sell tax-delinquent and vacant properties to responsible buyers.

The bill was unanimously approved by City Council on Thursday, and Mayor Nutter is expected to sign it. When it's implemented, Philadelphia will become the largest city to have a land bank.

Currently, the city's 9,000 vacant properties are divided among three agencies and departments -- the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp., and the city Department of Public Property. Each has a different process for selling land, and all transfers must be approved by City Council.

When Quiñones-Sánchez saw the lack of data available on the land-transfer resolutions, she sent her staff to take pictures of all the requests coming into her office and then had them organized in binders and computer files.

"Because everyone was doing their own disposition . . . there was no strategy" for neighborhood development, she said.

About the same time, Nutter was also exploring a Philadelphia land bank, an idea he had promoted during his mayoral campaign in 2007.

John Kromer, who was the executive director of the Office of Housing and Community Development under the Rendell and Street administrations, said the timing for the land bank was propitious. Vacant properties once deemed worthless in some parts of the city, especially those just outside Center City and near Temple University, were suddenly worth something.

"It's worth our while to do it," Kromer said, describing the consensus that was building at the time. "It's new economic development."

The idea gained momentum in February 2008, when Nutter and Quiñones-Sánchez individually met with Dan Kildee, a national expert on land banks and now a U.S. representative from Michigan.

Quiñones-Sánchez invited Kildee to her City Hall office to discuss the idea of starting a land bank in Philadelphia. Soon after, she hired Jennifer Kates as a legislative aide and asked her to develop a plan.

Reaching an agreement proved difficult. There were competing views within Council, and city agencies had their own agendas. Quiñones-Sánchez introduced a land-bank bill in June 2011 but it languished until October of this year, when it was finally scheduled for a committee hearing and gained momentum.

"If I didn't push, I wasn't going to get it," she said.

At the committee hearing, however, Council President Darrell L. Clarke surprised Quiñones-Sánchez and many others by proposing that Council have a second role in the disposition of vacant property through the creation of a Council advisory board known as the Vacant Property Review Committee.

To land-bank advocates and Quiñones-Sánchez, the board added an unnecessary level of bureaucracy to what was supposed to be an efficient and streamlined process.

Quiñones-Sánchez initially fought back, but eventually yielded on Clarke's advisory board and several other key amendments.

In hindsight, she said she should have spent more time working with Clarke.

"I probably should've had more nurturing discussions," she said. "I could've sold it to him better."


Philadelphia Land Bank

The land bank will hold all deeds in the city's portfolio of 9,000 vacant properties, replacing a system that was run by three agencies.

The land bank's strategic plan and its policies will be reviewed and approved annually by City Council.

To sell a vacant property, the following is needed: Approval from the land-bank board, a resolution from City Council, and a nod from the Vacant Property Review Committee (VPRC), a Council advisory panel.

The city finance director must approve the lifting of any liens on vacant properties before the land bank takes action.

Land-bank staff prepares deeds and transfers the properties, taking over from the three city departments that had been performing those tasks.


cvargas@phillynews.com

215-854-5520

@InqCVargas

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