For years, Philadelphia has been saddled with tens of thousands of vacant properties, many of them blighted and in disrepair. Today, the count is 42,000. The reasons for the stubbornly slow decline are various and complex, but one certainty is the enormous cost to residents and to city government.
According to a 2010 report commissioned by the Redevelopment Authority and Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, the sum loss in property value for Philadelphians due to vacant property was $3.6 billion — nearly $8,000 per household. For the city, this means millions in forgone tax revenue, of which a large portion would go to our schools. In many neighborhoods, residents are further burdened by the likelihood of higher crime, drug use, and public health hazards, including unstable buildings and pest control — all issues which, incidentally, the city spends millions to remediate.
The Land Bank created by City Council in 2013 was a landmark achievement and a significant step towards restoring thousands of vacant properties to productive use — as new housing, expanded business space, side yards, and other valuable community assets. The agency can be a powerful tool in this regard, especially when nearly three of four vacant properties in Philadelphia are privately-owned and tax delinquent.
Unfortunately, to date, many who have sought property through the Land Bank — for-profit and nonprofit developers, small-business owners, and city residents — have been frustrated. The number of properties acquired and disposed has ticked up over the past several years, nearly 500 coming in and 150 going out since 2017. But at this rate, it would still take generations to address the city’s full stockpile.
Legislation to be debated in Council this fall could offer a substantial stride forward. Close observers see some good signs. One proposal removes the Vacant Property Review Committee, an unnecessary oversight body in an already cumbersome process. Also promising is the long overdue consolidation of staff in the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation, which houses the Land Bank — this was completed over the summer. Another step will be to finally move all city-owned land into the bank.
Still, City Council’s role in approving land sales continues to generate negative headlines. Reports of off-the-record conversations related to any land deal contribute to the sense of an unlevel playing field at best and outright corruption at worst. Unethical behavior, real or perceived, casts a cloud over all of city government.
People expect a process they can trust — in drawing political maps, in casting ballots, and in managing city land. And people tend to trust that which they can see and understand. All of this presents a pair of threshold questions for Council and the administration.
First: What changes will make the system more transparent, responsive, and accountable? In particular: where and how will those with power in the land-sale process be weighing in? This includes the Land Bank staff and board, and yes, our district Council members.
And second: What’s needed for the Land Bank to begin putting bigger dents in the city’s mountain of vacant land? Consolidating staff and land in the Land Bank is part of the answer. Ensuring the agency has sufficient resources and capacity to take in more properties and get them out the door is another.
It’s striking how a deep frustration with the status quo is shared so broadly among community development corporations and neighborhood groups, developers, housing advocates, and individual citizens, but also from many inside City Hall. The Land Bank is the agency best positioned to address one of the city’s most challenging and costly issues. Let’s make it strong enough to work.
Pat Christmas is the policy director for the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan advocate for better government in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.