Vacant land has drained the spirit of many Philadelphia neighborhoods and tapped city finances - costing taxpayers $20 million a year for maintenance of neglected properties - and has dragged down the total value of city real estate by $3.6 billion, or $8,000 per household.
The political will to fix the problem has been lacking. Programs to move abandoned properties off the tax-delinquency rolls have been fragmented, with some more successful than others. But finally, it looks like the stars are lining up to create a land bank that could be a one-stop-shopping center for vacant land.
For more than a year and a half, a Nutter administration task force has been working to overhaul the city's tangled land-management system. An announcement may come this spring. Council members Maria Quinones-Sanchez and Bill Green have introduced a city bill that would establish the land bank. A state bill needed to create the land bank passed the lower house last week and its sponsor, State Rep. John Taylor (R., Phila.), says it looks good for approval by the Senate and Gov. Corbett.
Long supported by community developers, the land bank would provide a central location for housing information on the estimated 10,000 city-owned vacant properties. A handful of city agencies have title to vacant land, but often buyers get discouraged just trying to sort out which agency they should negotiate with to get a property.
Under the new system, buyers could feed an address into a city website, pull up a property, see who owns it, and begin negotiations to purchase it. The idea has been successful in more than a dozen other cities and could accelerate private investment in neighborhoods. The city wisely would require buyers to be current on their taxes, clear of property code violations, have land-use plans that meet community approval, and promise to maintain the land.
Centralizing efforts, particularly with a new and rational zoning code in place, makes sense.
This is a welcome and long-overdue tool to help neighborhoods by more quickly and smartly turning blighted properties into productive assets.