The 40,000 parcels of vacant, often neglected properties in Philadelphia are a non-stop emergency — and not just because of awful events like the fire at the Buck Hosiery factory that claimed the lives of two firemen. According to a 2010 report from Econsult, these parcels reduce property values citywide by $3.6 billion.
City government spends $20 million each year just to "maintain" the 12,000 parcels it owns. (That's the cost of a lot of cops, which, ironically, we need more of, since vacants invite trouble into neighborhoods.)
The city has been battling blight for more than a decade. At least under the Nutter administration, the Department of Licenses and Inspections has made progress in how the city monitors blight and demolishes imminently dangerous structures. But the city still hasn't settled on a strategy for how to get thousands of properties away from deadbeats and into the hands of responsible, taxpaying owners.
The most ambitious proposal comes from Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, who wants to create a "Land Bank" — essentially a big, government-run property-management company. The bank would take ownership of all the vacant land currently owned by city agencies, and serve as a single contact point for buyers, so they won't have to navigate city bureaucracy. It would also have the power to take control of tax-delinquent properties and borrow money for rehabilitation.
The Nutter administration has begun with a more cautious approach. Its vacant-land plan proposes a central point of contact for purchasers of city-owned parcels, but not transferring ownership to a single agency that can acquire new land. Privately owned blighted properties could still be put up for sheriff sale — hopefully more frequently than now.
Other critics worry that a land bank would keep too much property off the private market and that the bank could become a massive vehicle for political favoritism, since Council members could veto sales in their districts — and the bank would have the ability to sell to anyone, including low bidders it believes would use a parcel well.
The reality of the vacant-land problem is this: The city may not technically be the landlord for these properties, but it is still left holding the bag when problems arise.
We share critics' concerns about political favoritism and the bank serving as a work-around of the market. But the design of the bank can be tweaked to minimize these problems.
The state House recently passed a bill by Rep. John Taylor authorizing land banks; the Senate should vote on this without delay. Meanwhile, Council will hold hearings on QuinonesSanchez' proposal in June. Both Council and the mayor should embrace an aggressive approach to an enormous problem. The city's blight is a good example of the dangers of inaction outweighing the problems of action. n