Land Bank Defeatism Solves Nothing

Citified insider Jay McCalla has it wrong, anti-blight advocate argues.

Photo credit: Julia Rowe via Flickr

Photo credit: Julia Rowe via Flickr

[Editor’s Note: This story was first published on the blog of Progressive Philly Rising. It’s reprinted here in full with permission from the author. It’s a response to Citified insider Jay McCalla’s column criticizing the formation of the city’s new land bank.]

In a recent post on PhillyMag’s new Citified blog, contributor Jay McCalla argued that the new Philadelphia Land Bank is a bad idea. As the convener of the Philly Land Bank Alliance, a coalition of 16 diverse organizations that advocated successfully for passage of the Land Bank ordinance, the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations (PACDC) made a strong case to the contrary. We continue to work for implementation of an effective, accountable, transparent and equitable Land Bank. Here’s why:

Pictured here is the 2400 block of North 19th Street. Imagine how different it looked in 1929 when a man named Golden Eubanks purchased his home, likely becoming neighbors with the Coopers and the Goldbergs who bought their properties a few years earlier. They were probably newly built back then, and for Mr. Eubanks, who migrated to Philadelphia from the South, owning it might have been a source of great pride.

DSC04321But that block doesn’t look great today. Vacant lots and homes are scattered throughout. The City’s records show some properties are still owned by the same individuals who bought them in the 20’s and have been tax delinquent since the 80’s. Good luck collecting from Mr. Eubanks, who died in 1969.

This is the story of vacant property in Philadelphia. Once vibrant spaces were left abandoned and to crumble when people died, moved away, and businesses closed. Today, Philadelphia has approximately 32,000 properties that are vacant and tax delinquent, 8,000 of which are publicly owned and the remainder are in private hands. Most of these – about 24,000 – are vacant lots. The structures are in various stages of disrepair; some can be stabilized and occupied, and others must be demolished.

There are a few problems with how the City has dealt with these vacant properties, and why we need the reform the Land Bank will deliver.

First, the public inventory is scattered over multiple agencies. In the blocks surrounding where Mr. Eubanks raised his family, you’ll find publicly owned vacant properties adjacent to each other that are held by the City’s Office of Public Property (OPP), the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation (PHDC), the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) and the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA).

If you are a developer trying to assemble contiguous vacant lots for any kind of project, you had to navigate each of these public agencies. That makes no sense, so after a hard-fought campaign by advocates and our lead champion on Council, Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, City Council and the Nutter Administration agreed to support the creation of a Land Bank, which will consolidate public ownership under one agency. A flaw in the Land Bank is that PHA properties will not be consolidated because permission from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is required. Hopefully, cooperation from HUD and PHA will come in future years.

McCalla is skeptical of this approach, and points to the fact that a website meant to streamline this process (called PhillyLandWorks) didn’t solve the problem. McCalla is right about that website, and that’s why we needed the Land Bank. PhillyLandWorks was an interim step that helped the public and the City get a better handle on which City agency owned what using a web-based map; it didn’t change the back-end processes and organizational structures for how to get access to those properties.

EDSC04323ven if the agencies adopted the same exact process when someone expressed interest in a property as McCalla suggests, that would not have changed the fact that they are three different agencies, operate under different regulations and mandates, with different leadership structures and staff that have to make decisions. That was inefficient, and the Land Bank will change it, provided that OPP, PRA, PHDC and City Council all do their part to transfer all of the properties into the Land Bank as soon as possible. For the Land Bank to work, we need ONE owner of public surplus and vacant properties and ONE process for approving their sale.

While McCalla criticizes the creation of a new bureaucracy, keep in mind the Land Bank is housed at an existing agency (PHDC) to avoid the need for an entirely new administrative infrastructure, and most of its staff were (or will be) transferred from other City departments including PRA. But it needed to be created as a new entity to take advantage of powers given to Land Banks by the state that existing agencies don’t have (more on that below).

Second, we need a new tool to get access to the private inventory of abandoned, tax delinquent properties. Do you have a vision for an improved 1900 block of N. 24th St by getting abandoned, tax delinquent properties back into use? Maybe you want to build new homes where the Goldenbergs lived, or make a neighborhood garden grow where Mr. Eubanks grew his family. Or maybe you live on that block, and would like to own the lot next door as a yard. You could ask the current owners to sell it to you, but in many cases they’re nowhere to be found. You could convince the City to send them to Sheriff’s Sale, which makes sense if you can get the appropriate City agencies to act, then compete with other potential buyers at auction.

But this process doesn’t work if you’re trying to assemble multiple lots on a block, and need to get ownership of all of them to make the project work. It doesn’t work if you want to build affordable homes for income restricted buyers, and need the properties for nominal value to avoid requiring bigger public subsidies to make the project work. It doesn’t work if you want to create a community garden that will produce no revenue to pay back the cost of a loan to buy the property. It doesn’t work if you’re a market rate developer with a shovel ready project who gets out-bid at Sheriff’s sale by a speculator that sees the development pressure from Temple nearby and gobbles up properties only to let them sit vacant for years while the weeds grow.

But under new state authorizing legislation, the Land Bank has special new acquisition powers. The Land Bank can initiative tax sale proceedings against tax delinquent, privately held properties and take them into its inventory instead of sending them to Sheriff’s sale. This is a valuable tool to make acquisition decisions on vacant, tax delinquent properties in order to serve a public purpose, and to implement community plans. Think about it: doesn’t it make sense for a City agency that is solely focused on solving our vacant property epidemic have a significant role in deciding which new properties we take into the public inventory? How can we expect the Sheriff’s office or the Department of Revenue to think strategically about housing and greening strategies when it decides when to initiate the tax sale process? Plenty of properties will still go through the Sheriff’s sale process, and plenty of others will still be sold on the private market; the Land Bank just gives us one more tool to be more strategic about it.

Third, the Land Bank was needed as a tool for Equitable Development and planning. McCalla further argues that the City does not have the capacity to “cherry-pick” which of the privately-held, tax delinquent vacant parcels they should target for acquisition. Take a look at the Land Bank Strategic Plan: Page 43 shows you how they already identified 300 vacant structures and 800 vacant lots (most are private and tax delinquent) that present opportunities for “infill” housing on blocks with markets where the sale price would be more than the cost of development or rehab. Page 45 shows you they’ve identified 2,100 parcels that could fit the bill as side-yards. They also established data-driven focus-zones that get specific on where there are parcels the Land Bank can use to advance market rate development (Page 71), and Equitable Development (affordable homes in neighborhoods with good amenities) on pages 55 and 59. Page 79 shows you where they’ve identified parcels on our neighborhood commercial corridors that could be redeveloped for small businesses and economic development.

The great thing about this Strategic Plan is how it uses data and balances the importance of all of those strategies: market-rate development, affordable homes, green space and commercial development. While McCalla is critical of high-value properties being “preserved as vegetable lots,” I’d offer a different perspective in favor of the Land Bank caring about creating new or preserving existing green space in neighborhoods with development pressure, and nary a park or tree.   Or recognizing the need for affordable homes in neighborhoods where long term residents are being displaced due to rising cost of living. Or pushing market rate development into neighborhoods that need it. This is Equitable Development, and it’s something Philadelphia needs more of in order to ensure that every Philadelphian benefits from our city’s new growth.

This Plan, unanimously approved by City Council this past December, also makes it clear that the Land Bank will make acquisition and disposition decisions consistent with established neighborhood plans developed by or accepted by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC).

The Land Bank needs adequate staff and budget to do its job.  McCalla raises doubt about whether the Land Bank can do what is envisioned with its staff and budget. That’s a fair point. At some point, the Land Bank will have valuable properties that it will sell for market value, thus providing revenue to help sustain its operations. But it will also continue to own properties that have very little value, won’t have obvious buyers, and must be maintained. And it will need staff to actively market properties, process requests and work with buyers. To do this job effectively, the Land Bank will require more resources than it has now. But it didn’t make sense to budget more staff and money for the Land Bank before it was operational. And it didn’t really open its doors, so to speak, until this month when the Land Bank issued its first Request for Proposals for the redevelopment of 17 parcels on the 1600 block of N. Bodine Street, following a year of thoughtful work to get it set up.

Also keep in mind that there are resources being allocated to vacant property maintenance at other agencies, including demolition done by L&I. Another example is the very successful Land Care Program, which has cleaned and greened 8,500 lots over the last ten years, is run by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society with the participation of CDCs and other neighborhood groups, but is budgeted through a different agency, the Office of Housing and Community Development (OHCD). It makes sense to ensure strong coordination between the Land Bank and OHCD on this program, if not folding it into the Land Bank sometime in the near future, and boosting its funding to cover more lots.

The Land Bank is staffing up as well, having just approved a deal to transfer two employees from the PRA over to Land Bank, with more transfers from OHCD and PHDC to come following contract renewal negotiations with unions, to add the staff already there getting the agency off the ground.

Let’s talk about Councilmanic prerogative. Council had to pass the Land Bank ordinance in order for a Land Bank to be created. Council cares deeply about maintaining its ability to make decisions about who gains ownership of public properties. Defenders and detractors of that process can and will continue to share their points of view. But the Philly Land Bank Alliance was aware of the political realities, and chose not to ask Council to pass an ordinance that would have taken away Council’s own power. We also saw the potential for the Land Bank to significantly reform how we get vacant properties back into productive use and work effectively while Council maintained its authority to approve land transfers. We did, however, advocate for abolishing the Vacant Property Review Committee (which is a committee of Council, and on which PACDC sits) as a duplicative step in the process, but were unable to muster the support from Council for that idea. I hope and believe, in time, as the Land Bank works productively and effectively with Council, it will become clear the VPRC isn’t needed and Council will come around on that idea. But in the meantime, we’ll be advocating for making this new system work with the highest level of integrity and transparency.

The Philadelphia Land Bank exists in a new Philadelphia. A lot has happened in Philadelphia since Golden Eubanks passed away, since his home went vacant, and since NTI was launched by Mayor Street. Center City and University City are bustling. Surrounding neighborhoods that just 3 or 4 years ago were undesirable are seeing $350,000 – $400,000 homes built. Developers are clamoring for access to vacant properties, and frustrated with how long it takes to get them. That is why they joined non-profits like CDCs, small business groups, green space advocates, architects and others to call for the Philadelphia Land Bank. Because even though this motley crew may all compete over the same parcel of land for a different purpose, we knew we’d all be better off with a streamlined process that balanced our various needs.   We saw a city changing before our eyes, and knew we needed new tools to welcome growth and investment and build a more equitable city. We had a lot of ideas on how the Land Bank should operate, and we found leaders in Council and the Nutter Administration that listened and acted.

For this new Philadelphia Land Bank to work, we’ll need the next Administration to be just as committed through its staff and budget. We’ll need the buy-in from City Council to transfer the public property inventory into the Land Bank’s hands, now that it has opened its doors and can receive the properties. We’ll need the public and advocates like the Philly Land Bank Alliance to watchdog how the Land Bank operates to make sure it’s living up to its plans and promises, including on transparency and public input.

And we’ll need the public to buy-in to the idea of using the Land Bank, community planning and other tools to create a stronger, less economically segregated city. Because things are changing in Philadelphia, and now is the time to change them in ways that build an equitable city.

Beth McConnell is the Policy Director for the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations (PACDC). Follow her on Twitter @BAMinPhilly.