Philadelphia is home to hundreds of urban gardens. These gardens range from individually maintained side lots to sprawling multi-parcel oases run by community-led nonprofits. In urban food deserts, neighbors use vacant parcels to grow healthy produce for their families. Many of these gardens serve as community beacons, providing much-needed beauty in areas riddled with crime and blight. My job, as the environmental justice staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Center, is to protect these gardens — and privately owned tax liens on thousands of lots across the city are an imminent threat.
Cleaning and greening vacant lots across Philadelphia results in significant reductions to both perceived risks to safety and actual violent crimes in neighborhoods, including gun violence. Additionally, gardens help alleviate the impacts of climate change, creating a cooling effect in areas densely packed with concrete, and reducing mortality rates during heat waves.
But most gardens in Philadelphia have been built on abandoned or neglected land, and many gardeners don’t legally own the land they’re using. One of the largest nongovernment owners of vacant property in Philadelphia, controlling thousands of properties, is a bank in New York. In 1997, the city bundled together 30,000 tax liens and sold them to U.S. Bank in order to address a school funding crisis. But the arrangement didn’t work out, and the city lost money. The liens — and the lots — then entered a legal quagmire that has not been resolved.
As Samantha Melamed reported in an Inquirer article Wednesday, the consequences from the failed 1997 tax lien sale still have deep impacts on the city today. The liens are managed by the law firm Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, and the properties are almost impossible for homeowners or community groups to buy. The liens are expensive and cumbersome, and no local agencies have any control over them. City policy does not allow the Philadelphia Land Bank to use its power to acquire tax-delinquent land encumbered by these liens. Many of these properties are eventually sold through sheriff’s sale auctions, but often local homeowners and gardeners only find out about the auctions after the property has already been sold. Half of the potential clients who reach out to the Law Center for help in preserving a garden manage lots burdened by a private bank lien.
In 2017, there were more than 5,000 properties encumbered by U.S. Bank liens. In February 2020, there were fewer than 3,000 properties remaining on this list. Hundreds more have been sold during the pandemic, many through limited-access online sheriff’s sales. To give just one example, earlier this year, a West Philly resident who had maintained a garden next to her home for 30 years lost the property when it was listed for auction, and no one in the city was able to postpone the sale. The garden is now at risk to be lost to private development.
Most of the remaining encumbered properties are in predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods. Ninety percent of the properties sold since July 1, 2019, were located in neighborhoods near or below the poverty line.
Following City Council hearings on the issue this summer, Sheriff Rochelle Bilal promised to engage with community groups to ensure concerns like these were addressed before auctions resumed. But sales are now resuming with limited communication to the public regarding reforms to the process. Notice of properties going to sheriff’s sale is still sporadic and inaccessible, and the process still inhibits community participation. To fix it, the sheriff needs to immediately end internet-based sheriff sales. The sheriff and the city should give community groups the right of first refusal to acquire vacant properties that are already in use. Most importantly, the city should finally allocate the funding necessary to clear these liens and allow community groups to acquire the land.
The ongoing disposition of so many of these properties through private and sheriff’s sales represents an enormous community risk, especially in Council Districts 3, 7, and 8, where the properties are heavily concentrated. To prevent the high rate of displacement and loss of green space, the city must develop short- and long-term strategies. As a first step, the city must place an immediate moratorium on sending properties encumbered by these liens to auction, ensuring that beneficial community land uses are protected. In the neighborhoods that need it most, Philadelphia should not allow green space to be sold out from under those who have maintained it for years.
Ebony Griffin is a staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Center, focused on environmental justice.