is executive director of Mt. Airy USA
The new land-bank legislation should aid the long-term fight against blight, but Philadelphia already has a tool to address many of its 40,000 blighted properties. Act 135 - the Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act - is a little-known, little-used state law that, with help from City Hall, could be used to push owners into caring for their properties or to get them into the hands of someone who will.
Act 135, passed in 2008, allows community development corporations (CDCs) and neighbors to petition the Court of Common Pleas to be appointed conservators of a property that is vacant, blighted, and presenting a general nuisance to the community. If appointed (after giving the owner and lienholders sufficient time and notice to respond), the conservator then has legal authority to enter the property and rehabilitate it, clean it, or demolish it - whatever the appropriate course of action is. Once the work is complete, the conservator can petition the court for a disposition plan and, after paying outstanding liens, clear the property's title.
Mt. Airy USA recently became one of Philadelphia's first CDCs to successfully use Act 135 to address a blighted property. The boarded, vacant house - investor-owned and tax-delinquent - has been a long-standing eyesore. It had a host of code violations and was a haven for squatters, drug activity, and other nuisance behavior.
If City Hall wants to mount a serious effort in the fight against blight, in concert with the land bank, it could take a few simple steps to pave the way for community groups to use Act 135 in earnest, including:
Push city departments to waive or reduce outstanding liens on conservatorship properties. Act 135 requires that any sale proceeds first be used to repay outstanding municipal liens. While one benefit of conservatorship is that delinquent taxes and fines are paid, this requirement can stifle redevelopment possibilities. The Department of Licenses and Inspections controls only certain liens, so the mayor's office or the city Commerce Department should ensure that other agencies - the Revenue and Water Departments and Philadelphia Gas Works - are on board.
Give eligible parties interested in conservatorship a preference over taking properties through sheriff's sales. While there is an imperative to bring in as much tax revenue as possible for the schools, sheriff's sales alone are a shortsighted approach to the problem. A land speculator can purchase a blighted property at sheriff's sale and allow it to remain in its deteriorating state. No one wins in this instance. Conservatorship would ensure that back taxes are repaid, and also guarantee that the blight is removed and the problem eliminated for good.
The land bank is a notable achievement, but without improvements to the city's internal processes, the length of time and energy required to navigate the bureaucracy may make it prohibitively burdensome. Conversely, Mt. Airy USA's first conservatorship took seven months from start to finish. In the spring, this eyesore will be a beautiful, new housing opportunity for someone.
The fight against blight is an "all hands on deck" battle, and City Hall should ensure that every weapon in the community's arsenal is used for maximum impact.