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Councilmanic prerogative makes city a bad landlord | Editorial

It is bad enough when neglect by private speculators keeps properties blighted for decades; when the city effectively does the same thing, it is a betrayal.

After years of neglect under city ownership, 2016 N. 20th St. (with the blue door) was demolished under a court order.
After years of neglect under city ownership, 2016 N. 20th St. (with the blue door) was demolished under a court order.Read moreGoogle Maps

Over the years, this board has consistently railed against the practice of councilmanic prerogative and its wide-reaching consequences. A recent court hearing demonstrated yet another drawback to the policy: It has essentially turned city agencies into slumlords.

The hearing, before Judge Ann Butchart, was in response to an Act 135 petition. Passed in 2008 in order to help fight blight and abandonment, Act 135 allows interested parties, known as conservators, to take possession of properties that have been unoccupied for at least a year, under a set of predetermined conditions.

While conservators are entitled to recoup rehabilitation costs, the act grants them possession, not ownership, with an aim of restoring the property to functional use, not helping conservators amass their own real estate portfolios.

While properties fall vacant for many reasons, Act 135 was designed with speculators and profiteers like Emanuel Freeman and Sam Rappaport in mind, not city agencies. Yet, as a result of its failure to care for and promptly sell property, the city has joined their ranks.

For years, the Land Bank, a body formed to expedite sales of city-owned land, has owned 2016 N. 20th St., a dilapidated property in North Philadelphia. Neighbors testified in court that the three-story building lacked a proper roof, caused water to leak into adjacent properties, was a breeding ground for pests, and was used as an escape route for a gunman after a nearby shooting.

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Beyond ignoring the pleas of neighbors who wanted the property renovated, the Land Bank also failed to rectify years of code violations. A city inspector testified that sustained disuse led to the property being placed on a list of structures that were in such a state of disrepair that they would likely collapse or were otherwise imminently dangerous. Butchart ordered the demolition of the property.

This is hardly the first time Philadelphia’s mismanagement of public-owned land has led to legal challenges over ownership. In 2019, the city lost a court battle over a plot of land in the 1100 block of Front Street in Fishtown.

When the city fought to regain the land, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously admonished Philadelphia’s public officials, with Justice Max Baer writing that “A municipality’s holding of abandoned property, here for decades, offers no benefit to the public.” Baer was right. Blight contributes to disinvestment and can spread structural hazards to neighboring buildings. New research shows that remediating blight can help reduce gun violence.

It is bad enough when neglect by private speculators keeps properties blighted for decades; when the city effectively does the same thing, it is a betrayal.

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Elected officials talk constantly about the need to reverse redlining, the problems of governing a city without sufficient tax revenue, and the urgency of tackling quality-of-life issues. Yet here is a city agency contributing to each of these systemic problems.

So why is the city still clinging to tens of thousands of properties that it has no ability to maintain? Councilmanic prerogative.

In order for the Land Bank to sell any city-owned property, it must be approved by the councilmember in whose district the parcel is located. Few councilmembers have been consistently willing to provide that approval.

While council members cling tightly to the control prerogative gives them over city property, that degree of authority provides little benefit either to the city in general or to the councilmembers themselves. The city’s land-purchase polices featured prominently in Second District Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson’s recent federal bribery trial, and 57% of Philadelphians would like to see changes to the practice. So would we.

Philadelphia’s land-owning agencies simply do not have the resources to maintain tens of thousands of properties they own around the city. Instead, these properties need to be sold and returned to productive use — housing residents who need homes and providing tax revenue to city coffers.

While the costs of hoarding land are stark, the benefits of selling have seldom been greater. With housing costs rising rapidly, Philadelphia is in dire need of new affordable housing. The city’s builders have publicly committed to building thousands of new subsidized homes — if the city is willing to sell them the land they need.

With Philadelphians suffering from gun violence, wage tax revenue fleeing to the suburbs, and housing harder to find than ever before, now is the time for district councilmembers to finally put city-wide interests ahead of their own personal desire for control.