Reports of flawed records and improper sales trigger call for investigation of city land deals
The Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities is calling on City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart to investigate public land sales, following Inquirer and Daily News reports about flaws in the system.
A coalition of activist groups and labor unions is calling on City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart to launch a review of public land sales – and City Council's role in facilitating them – following Inquirer and Daily News reports on major flaws in the city's land disposition procedures.
The Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities (PCAC), a 62-member group that includes community, labor, disability, faith and urban agriculture organizations, wants Rhynhart to delve into five years of land sales with a focus on how "councilmanic prerogative" may have impacted them at the expense of taxpayers.
Under that unwritten tradition, Council members effectively have a veto over public land sales in their districts.
Nora Lichtash, a member of PCAC's steering committee, said politicization of the process can undermine the city's attempts to professionalize how it sells public property through the city's Land Bank, which was created in 2014.
"Publicly held land is not meant to be a land grab for friends of council members who flip the properties for profit, as recently reported by the Inquirer," the PCAC wrote to Rhynhart on Tuesday.
Rhynhart's office said in a statement Wednesday that it would give the request the "serious consideration it deserves" as it plans its 2019 audits.
The Inquirer and Daily News reported last month that a childhood friend of Councilman Kenyatta Johnson purchased three valuable city-owned lots in Point Breeze last summer in a no-bid sale, and then resold two a month later for a $165,000 profit – without building homes, as the city had expected.
City officials initially told reporters that Johnson's friend, Felton Hayman, was the only developer who wanted the land. They later conceded that the properties had actually attracted 15 "expressions of interest" from other developers. Regardless, Paul Chrystie, a spokesman for the city's landholding agencies, said Hayman became the "only eligible purchaser" because his plan was backed by Johnson.
Sources said the FBI recently subpoenaed city records pertaining to those transactions.
Lichtash had hoped that the Land Bank, a city agency meant to centralize and streamline the sale of vacant land and tax-delinquent properties, would reduce Council's influence and create a more efficient and transparent process, as well as make more land available for affordable housing and community gardens for fresh produce.
"It just hasn't happened," she said. "I think that has something to do with councilmanic prerogative."
Responding to PCAC's request for a controller's audit, city spokesperson Mike Dunn said, "We welcome discussions on this important matter with the controller and all stakeholders."
Shoddy record-keeping has also plagued the city's land disposition system.
The Inquirer and Daily News reported last week on new details of Hayman's purchase of three other Point Breeze lots in 2016 at below market value and without the required bidding or appraisals.
Hayman told the Vacant Property Review Committee – whose chair is appointed by Council President Darrell L. Clarke – that he planned to build affordable homes of under $250,000, but records maintained by that committee initially labeled the transactions as "side yards," not for development. The records also failed to show that the properties had attracted dozens of expressions of interest from other developers.
City officials eventually corrected the errors, but the no-bid sale was approved anyway. Hayman built homes on each of the lots. The last one sold in May for $415,000.