The idea was simple and made eminent sense: To get a better handle on the plague of abandoned properties and vacant lots and the morass of red tape required to dispose of them, the city would create a land bank to collect and streamline the process for selling those lots.
That was five years ago, and after a hard won fight by Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez, Council gave the thumbs up to the idea. While land banks existed in other cities, we were the largest city to create one.
The verdict five years later is that the Philadelphia Land Bank hasn’t fulfilled its promise to provide either streamlined or easy ways for the city to strategically sell and get the properties back on the tax rolls. The inventory remains stubbornly high — more than 40,000 properties — and the process is still slow and had added new layers of bureaucracy.
While some streamlining did occur, by reducing the number of agencies who hold properties, part of the complication stems from the fact that the sales and disposition still fall to more than one agency: The Redevelopment Authority, the Land Bank, and the Vacant Property Review Committee, a body run by an appointee of City Council President Darrell L. Clarke. Each has different aims and protocols for reviewing and disposing properties, and naturally each has territory and authority to protect. But since Council approval is required for sales from any of these entities, many complain that Council has an outsized role in determining the fate of properties.
Just last week, a number of groups called on the City Controller to review five years of property sales in all Council districts and examine whether “councilmanic prerogative” — which gives council members ultimate power over land sales in their district — was a factor. That was prompted by land deals approved and shepherded by Councilman Kenyatta Johnson to a friend of his, who in turn flipped two of the properties for a hefty profit.
Clarke quickly offered some reforms — ironically introduced on his behalf by Johnson — that would close some of the loopholes that allow speculation without meaningful development or oversight.
The city’s vacant land problem is a complicated one, involving clearing titles, tracking down owners who have abandoned properties, and satisfying tax liens and unpaid utilities before the city can lay claim to a property and then sell it.
Getting the Land Bank to work effectively will take more complicated fixes, and, frankly, more flexibility from Council. Is that even possible? Council members consistently argue that they are best informed and best equipped to make decisions on development in their districts.
That may be true, but that reality tends to balkanize Philadelphia in a way that doesn’t necessarily serve the needs of the city as a whole. If the key leaders in the city are focused only the properties in their district, they are not seeing the whole problem: 40,000 properties lying fallow, keeping communities in decline and their residents, so many of whom live in poverty, kept from partaking in a thriving, financially healthy city.