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City Council Passes Reform to Vacant Land Sale Process

October 31, 2019

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Patrick Christmas
Committee of Seventy, Policy Director
pchristmas@seventy.org
919-423-7281 (c)

CITY COUNCIL PASSES REFORM TO VACANT LAND SALE PROCESS
Legislation is a step forward, but more work left to do

PHILADELPHIA, PA – City Council today passed Bill 190606-AA which includes a number of significant changes to the current system of vacant land sales that promise greater accessibility, transparency and fairness. The Committee of Seventy applauds the efforts of City Council, the Kenney administration, advocates, developers and others who have worked tirelessly for years around these issues, and who helped create the Philadelphia Land Bank in 2013 – a landmark achievement in addressing the thousands of vacant and blighted properties across the city. But mounting evidence since then has made clear the need for further improvements in the City’s land use system as a whole and the Land Bank, in particular.

Given Seventy’s long-held focus on ethical and effective government, we have been deeply troubled by the steady reporting of off-the-record conversations involving the sale of city property. As we have suggested previously, such stories contribute to a sense of an unlevel playing field at best, or corruption, at worst. Even the perception of foul play damages Philadelphians’ trust in City Hall.

Extensive conversations with various stakeholders have made clear to us that the vulnerabilities in the process of selling city land are real. They’ve been abused in the past, and reform is needed to guard against inappropriate dealings. But change is also urgently needed to better position the Land Bank to perform its mission at the scale we need: returning thousands of vacant and tax-delinquent properties to productive use. Of the estimated 42,000 such properties in Philadelphia today, more than 6,000 are in public ownership and should be disposed according to the Land Bank’s strategic plan. Nearly 34,000 other properties are privately owned and, consequently, present their own quagmire of challenges.

The cost of not putting larger dents in this stockpile are enormous, estimated by one 2010 report to be as much as $3.6 billion in lost property value to Philadelphians – nearly $8,000 per household. This report, commissioned by the Redevelopment Authority and Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, also estimated more than $20 million in annual maintenance costs for the City and tens of millions of dollars in forgone revenue for the City and School District. The stakes are high.

Fortunately, this legislation offers a substantial step forward, bolstering both the integrity and effectiveness of land disposition. It is important to note that an overarching goal of the proposal is to create a clear and uniform disposition policy that would apply both to the Land Bank and Redevelopment Authority, which each hold public land. This should be helpful to the individuals and developers applying for those properties, but also to the city officials and employees who have had to work between different land-holding agencies with different procedures and norms. This scattered and byzantine arrangement has stymied the City’s ability to move more than a few hundred properties back into productive use in recent years, but also created the seams where conversations could be had and decisions made out of the public eye.

The Vacant Property Review Committee (VPRC), in particular, has been an unnecessary hurdle in a set of steps that already includes oversight from the Philadelphia Land Bank and Redevelopment Authority boards. The VPRC also represented a decision point where influence could be exerted on land sales from City Council offices without documentation or reasoning. It should have been kept out of the Land Bank from the outset, but it’s elimination in this legislation is a welcome development.

Looking forward, the mandated three-year strategic plan and performance reports should provide some insight into what works well and what areas will need further improvement. City residents, developers and advocates – who largely share similar frustrations with the status quo – will have feedback in the months ahead if seeking property has not become a less cumbersome exercise. Continuous evaluation and scrutiny will be essential.

In addition to evaluating the implementation of the new law, the remaining surplus properties not yet in the Land Bank should be transferred over, finally establishing a single repository of public land to move back into the market. City Council members with power over these transfers, having just approved these sweeping new reforms, need to support this deposit. And second, the Land Bank must have sufficient funding and resources to manage greater numbers of properties coming in and going out, either through a new revenue sharing agreement with the City or a larger appropriation from the General Fund.

The 26-page bill is seeking to simplify and improve a complicated system, but the law itself and the policies and procedures underneath it will assuredly need further review, public input and refinement. The Mayor and City Council members entering office next year should know that there will be more work left to do.

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