The little lot next to Jamie Denning’s family home in West Philadelphia may not be worth much, but to her neighbors it’s a safe haven. A mason who lives nearby laid down pavers and installed a sturdy fence. A box holds a modest food pantry. And, for years, Denning has poured her own funds and sweat into greening the lot.
“We have so many shootings in the neighborhood, and the guys will often run up and down the street after a shooting. We don’t have any speed bumps on the street,” Denning said. So the lot, in her view, is quite literally a life saver, providing kids with a play space out of traffic and cross fire.
Recently, though, Denning learned the land was set to be sold at sheriff’s sale on Friday — without regard to her efforts to transform it, and divorced from any broader city strategies for community development or preservation of open land.
What triggered that sale was a $23,000 privately held tax lien on the property, a sum substantially larger than the lot’s assessed value. The property is one of thousands across Philadelphia tied up in a nearly 25-year-old gambit that was touted as a bold financial maneuver at the time — but that the city controller later declared to be a “worst-case scenario” for the city.
In that 1997 initiative, the city raised $72 million by selling off tax liens on 33,000 properties to a private lienholder that would recoup the investment with aggressive collection efforts. But those collection efforts fell short, and the city defaulted on $42 million in bonds secured by the liens. An unintended result was to privatize control over the fates of thousands of abandoned, tax-delinquent properties, which have been sold in backroom deals, auctioned at sheriff’s sales, or remain in the real-estate equivalent of purgatory.
Advocates have long urged the city to develop a mechanism to regain control over the disposition of those properties. About 2,300 remain — concentrated in poor, primarily Black and Latino communities in North and West Philadelphia where some blocks are home to five, 10, or more. But the city’s Land Bank, City Council, and administration officials all say they’re unable to intervene. A spokesperson for the sheriff did not respond to interview requests.
Meanwhile, Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, the law firm hired by US Bank to dispose of the liens, is ramping up sale efforts. The firm aims to dispose of all remaining lien sale properties within two years, said Mark Harris, a managing partner. Harris said the liens on the remaining properties were worth $5.27 million; with penalties and interest, though, the tab is $25.4 million.
Now that tax sales, which had been suspended since the start of the pandemic, are set to resume, advocates say urgent action — and a clear process — is desperately needed.
“One of the biggest frustrations that a lot of community groups have had is it’s impossible to even get answers about what to do,” said Adam Butler, a volunteer with the César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden in North Philadelphia, which comprises an assortment of parcels, including bank lien properties.
City Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez keeps a map in her office of the 1,357 lien-sale properties that, by her last count, dotted her Kensington and North Philadelphia district.
She called it a daily reminder “of how frustrating bureaucracy is.”
“I’ve put this [issue] on the record at least four times a year for the last 13 years,” she said, but her proposals have not yielded results. Still, she believes the city could find a path to secure these properties. “It’s not that we don’t have leverage. It’s that we don’t have the political leadership to use that leverage.”
She worries most about lots in gentrifying South Kensington, where residents have tended to properties for years, saving the city thousands of dollars. In her view, the city should ensure those residents aren’t now shut out.
But Anne Fadullon, the city’s director of planning and development, said there is no recourse. She said the city has sought to negotiate the release of some liens, but the trust held by US Bank has taken an all-or-nothing stance.
“They want the city to pay all of them off. That number is north of $25 million,” Fadullon said. “What’s happened is not that there hasn’t been political will. There hasn’t been the financial wherewithal with all the other budget priorities for the city to find that money.”
Nonprofit developers have fared no better, said Rick Sauer, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Community Development Corporations, who called the bank liens a “big impediment” to assembling parcels.
“The only conversation with Linebarger is one where they tell you what the payoff amount is” to clear the lien, said Jenny Greenberg, executive director of the Neighborhood Gardens Trust, which holds the lease or title for about 50 community gardens. Often, that amount is triple or quadruple the original lien due to penalties and interest. But raising funds to pay off the lien does not create a path to ownership.
And enlisting pro bono lawyers for these parcels has proved all but impossible, according to Ebony Griffin, who heads the Public Interest Law Center’s Garden Justice Legal Initiative. Every law firm she’s contacted on behalf of an affected gardener either had a conflict of interest involving the bank or feared establishing one.
What’s confusing to community organizers like Butler, though, is that some developers are finding ways to secure the bank lien properties. The Iglesias gardeners began organizing around the issue last year, Butler said, after discovering that a bank-lien-encumbered property adjoining the garden had been quietly transferred to a developer.
“There is obviously a pathway that is not accessible to normal people,” he said.
Analyzing city sale data, he found that many of the lien-sale properties had been sold in bulk. He identified 15 LLCs that had bought 10 or more parcels, and one that had purchased more than a hundred.
Quiñones-Sánchez said the city could find ways to exert more control over these sales, for instance by leveraging additional city-held liens for demolition or cleanup work that’s been incurred. In some cases, Harris said, Linebarger has honored city requests to hold off.
Denning, for one, said that after frantic calls to City Council members, she was told her side lot is safe for at least a few months. But there are no guarantees.
Victor Young, who helped build a garden on five lots in the Hestonville section of West Philadelphia, said he’s been able to secure the majority of his garden — all except a plot with a bank lien.
“We’ve been trying for several years to get information from US Bank what they were going to do,” he said. “One moment we thought they were going to settle with us. Then nothing happened.”
Young said the lush garden has helped unite the community, feed neighbors, and even drive away drug dealers who once capitalized on the isolation of the block. “A cool breeze seems to blow through there,” he said. “It’s an oasis in a concrete jungle.”
To preserve those efforts going forward, Quiñones-Sánchez emphasized that a larger strategy is needed, especially given that hundreds more liens were sold in 2015, over the objections of community groups.
“This is nothing compared to what’s coming,” she said, “and this is why lien sales are so problematic if there isn’t a long-term plan.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.