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Philadelphia urged to use vacant land to curb shortages of affordable housing and food

The Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities wants the city to change the way it distributes its vacant parcels to give community groups more access. The city owns thousands of parcels.

Signs saying “Not For Sale” and “Stop The Land Grab” in North Philadelphia.
Signs saying “Not For Sale” and “Stop The Land Grab” in North Philadelphia.Read moreTyger Williams / File Photograph

Domonique Howell and her toddler daughter were homeless for a year after their landlord refused to make repairs needed for them to receive rental assistance and evicted them from their apartment in 2017. Since Howell uses a wheelchair and the homes of friends and a shelter weren’t fully accessible, she spent that year sleeping in her chair.

She struggled to find a home that was affordable and accessible and didn’t require her to add her name to a years-long waiting list. With the help of a lawyer, a social worker, and others, she found her current apartment in West Philadelphia that is accessible. And it’s affordable for Howell, an independent living specialist for Liberty Resources, which advocates for people with disabilities.

Howell’s struggles spurred her to join the latest campaign by the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities: Calling on city officials to transfer publicly owned vacant land to community groups to build homes, prevent displacement of residents, and help address the city’s worsening affordable-housing crisis.

» READ MORE: In fast-developing corner of North Philly, vacant lots become priceless

Maybe if more of the city’s vacant properties had been transformed into affordable homes, Howell thinks, the 35-year-old and her daughter, Rylee, a couple of weeks shy of 7, could have avoided becoming homeless years ago.

“There’s a lot of vacant land in Philadelphia. You can use it for something good,” she said. “If we fill the vacant lots with homes for people who are marginalized and disenfranchised, then we won’t have such a severe homeless problem.”

The Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities, a group of about 60 organizations, wants the city to change the way it distributes public land from a process that tends to favor wealthier developers to one that gives nonprofit developers and communities greater access and time to gather resources to provide permanent affordable housing. Philadelphia owns roughly 6,000 vacant lots, according to the city’s inventory.

The concept is not new, but the coalition timed the announcement of its campaign Thursday to coincide with the first day of the City Council session and is pushing for Council to take action quickly as home prices continue to climb and the pandemic widens gaps in affordable housing. The group also wants neighborhoods to be able to hold on to the vacant land they use as community gardens to grow their own food. Feeding America, the country’s leading hunger-relief charity, estimated in June that the pandemic would push rates of food insecurity in 2020 to 21.2% in Philadelphia.

» READ MORE: 4 things to watch as Philly City Council gets back to work in 2021

Council members Jamie Gauthier, Derek Green, Kendra Brooks, and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez are among those who support the campaign.

Gauthier said in an interview that she plans to introduce legislation that would help put more vacant land into the hands of community members to benefit residents. She called publicly owned vacant land “one of the most powerful tools our government has to help us achieve our affordable-housing goals, to help us to protect community spaces, and encourage land ownership and wealth building.” The city should be supporting community land trusts and grassroots organizations that aim to prevent the displacement of residents, she said.

“The affordable-housing crisis has worsened, so we need to add more tools to our tool belt,” Gauthier said. Because Philadelphia and other cities have a legacy of adopting policies that have hurt Black and brown communities, policymakers have to make sure new policies center around the people who have been hurt in the past, she said.

Philadelphia has nearly twice as many households that earn less than $30,000 annually than it has rental units they can afford, according to a September report by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Over the last five years, 7% of new homes built on publicly owned land were affordable to households earning less than $25,000 per year, a group that makes up 31% of the city’s population, according to a report the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities released Thursday.

Angelita Ellison lived in South Philly for most of her life, and she had planned to stay, even as she and her son looked to leave the house her grandparents bought in the early 1980s and her mother had inherited. Then a series of broken pipes in the aging house led to a warped kitchen floor, structural damage, and mold, and Ellison had to move quickly. Her mother, who had been turned down for home improvement loans, sold the house in 2019 and moved to South Carolina.

Ellison, 37, couldn’t afford to stay in South Philly without straining her budget. She and her 14-year-old son now live in a small Northeast Philadelphia apartment, which is a temporary solution, she said.

» READ MORE: Sold for $1, resold for riches: How Philly gave away $54 million in properties (from February 2020)

“I’m still looking to buy my own home,” said Ellison, who volunteers with Women’s Community Revitalization Project, a member of the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities, and works for the state’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. It’s seasonal work, so she’s thinking about moving to Harrisburg as she tries to find full-time work with the state.

When she visits friends in South Philly, she passes tennis courts around the corner from her old house that had been neglected and never had nets. Now, the courts are in playing shape.

“It just kind of illustrates they don’t really care about the folks that are living in the neighborhood,” Ellison said. “They just want to bring in the new folks with more money.”

Suku John, a member of the steering committee for the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities, said he hopes that either city-owned land or privately held tax-delinquent properties that communities use as gardens or green spaces can be transferred to the land bank or held in trust. John helps run community gardening programs on formerly vacant land as the executive director of the East Park Revitalization Alliance, a local group operating in a section of Strawberry Mansion.

“I think most people understand that having green space that’s close by and accessible is healthy,” John said. “I strongly feel that gardening or creating open spaces can be a powerful community-building tool.”

At the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities’ news conference Thursday, John had a parting message for City Council: “Allow public land to be put to good use for the community, by the community.”