Can Philly fix its slow and complex process for vacant land sales? A reform bill advances in City Council.
The bill would add transparency to the redevelopment of city-owned lots. But City Council members still have final say over deals in their districts, leading to politically-connected buyers scoring deals at taxpayers' expense.
Philadelphia took a step Tuesday toward reforming vacant property sales — plagued by a lack of transparency, slow-moving bureaucracy, and recent scandals — as a City Council committee approved a bill that would change the city’s land-sale process.
The bill would streamline the process of selling city-owned vacant lots by eliminating one committee involved in land sales, establishing goals and criteria to evaluate land deals, and requiring that buyers comply with an agreed-upon use for a property.
“I think we’re very, very clear that we need this strategic plan,” said Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, one of the bill’s sponsors. “We need a simple process of reviewing all of this stuff.”
But even if the reforms pass, the practice known as “councilmanic prerogative” would remain intact. The unwritten rule, through which Council members defer to the colleague whose district includes the property for sale, has led to scrutiny of land sales amid reports of suspicious deals involving politically connected buyers and profitable land flips.
Council’s Committee on Public Property and Public Works unanimously approved the bill Tuesday and sent it to the full Council for a vote.
The legislation is the result of several meetings between Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration and Council, officials said, but additional amendments are still needed before final passage.
Anne Fadullon, the city’s director of planning and development, said the administration and Council have been working through the complex legislation to develop “a bold and substantial” proposal that will increase transparency for land sales.
“This is a big deal, and we want to get it right,” Fadullon said.
The bill would require the city to follow the same process for all types of vacant properties, Fadullon said, including those handled by the Philadelphia Land Bank and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. It would eliminate the Vacant Property Review Committee (VPRC), which oversees some land deals.
The city halted sales of public land that had VPRC involvement early this year after reports of developers making windfalls in city land deals, including an Inquirer investigation about how a childhood friend of Councilman Kenyatta Johnson made $165,000 reselling two Point Breeze lots that he purchased from the city.
The Land Bank, established in 2013 to streamline redevelopment of vacant properties, began its work in 2015. The city, Land Bank, and redevelopment authority own a total of 8,400 properties, said Mike Dunn, a city spokesperson. A report commissioned under former Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration found that there is a total of about 40,000 vacant properties in the city.
“We’re trying to create a uniform process so it doesn’t matter what the land-holding entity is, the process is the same,” Fadullon told Council members at Tuesday’s hearing.
The legislation would also require the evaluation of land bids within 180 days — a measure aimed at accelerating an often long and confusing process for interested bidders — and establish criteria for the evaluations.
The bill currently calls for the evaluation to be weighted based on criteria such as the economic opportunity a proposed project would bring, inclusion, public purpose, and social impact, the experience of the development team, and financial feasibility. The offer price is also considered, but at a weight of only 5%.
Quiñones-Sánchez said those criteria would help the city prioritize small businesses and find the best fit for the surrounding neighborhood rather than simply selling land to the highest bidder.
Representatives from some community groups told Council members Tuesday that they supported the legislation, but would like to see clearer definitions of the evaluation criteria and a commitment to publicly release the scoring evaluations.
“These are good-sounding terms,” said Will Gonzalez, executive director of Ceiba, a nonprofit that supports economic development and inclusion for the city’s Latino community. “However, there are no firm definitions.”
The bill also calls for deed restrictions that would allow the city to ensure the land is redeveloped as promised. After reports of profitable land flips and no-bid sales, Kenney issued a directive last year that the city crackdown on flipping and institute deed restrictions.
“I think with the big-picture items, we do have agreement,” Fadullon told the committee. “We are in agreement with the intent, but working through these details, it does take some time.”
Clarification: This article was updated to reflect the number of vacant properties the city currently owns.