Cheers to the Nutter administration for clearing some of the bureaucratic impediments that have paralyzed Philadelphia's ability to manage its wealth of properties, much of which is stuck in a hellish cycle of abandonment and blight.
Using an interactive database accessible to anyone, a potential property buyer can key in an address, a block, or a neighborhood, find a piece of city-owned property, and start negotiating to buy it.
The hope is that transfers of city land to private owners will speed up and help stabilize neighborhoods trying to fight blight. The aim is to turn weed-covered, rat-infested properties into community assets that can draw investment.
The best estimate is that there are 40,000 vacant properties in Philadelphia, with about 9,000 held by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, Department of Public Property, or Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. Many of those 9,000 parcels will become available to earnest buyers in a much more straightforward way than they are now.
The city says it will within weeks add prices to the parcels and, where there is high demand, hold auctions. At times, it may use real estate brokers. Buyers would be screened for their capacity to develop and whether they owe back taxes or have outstanding building-code violations on other properties. They must agree to develop on a set timetable.
Unbelievably, until now, the city didn't have a cohesive property-sales policy. Land holdings were managed by various departments with their own peculiar rules. Records were kept on paper or in the heads of city workers. There was no single place where a buyer could make a deal. There were few guarantees that speculators wouldn't profit at a community's expense. Parcels that should have been sold were put on hold by bureaucrats or City Council members, acting on behalf of favored developers or supporters.
Buyers should find a much cleaner system after the city formally launches its website in June. A helpful by-product is that the city and the public can keep a better eye on transactions.
Unfortunately, though, there's still a trapdoor in the system. Under the archaic practice of Council prerogative, district Council members will still be able to hold up land deals. Instead of confronting Council about this tradition that has no basis in law, the Nutter administration has asked would-be purchasers to get district Council members' blessings in the early stages of a deal.
This new system can track exactly why deals fall apart. Eventually, patterns will emerge that show specifically who on Council may have abused his power to stop land purchases. Council members will have more than a few angry folks to deal with if they block the enormous economic potential of the city's vast land holdings.
It is understandable that the Nutter administration would want to step around Council's sticky politics in order to quickly get a grip on the city's considerable land inventory and move it into productive use. But now that the mayor is cleaning up his end of the land-sales system, Council should consider the welfare of the entire city and ditch a tradition that has outlived its usefulness.