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The history of Philadelphia city government trying to solve the city’s vacant land problem can seem like a re-occurring bad dream: Every couple of mayoral terms an old plan is ditched for a new one.
Yet somehow, we never seem to solve the problem. Tens of thousands of vacant lots across the city remain vacant. And in many cases, there are people who would like to claim them, and put them back into productive use, but they can’t – for reasons that can usually be traced back to the confusing array of multiple city agencies that all have some say in the matter.
For all intents and purposes, the city is stuck.
“No one can get the land — you just can’t move forward,” says Nora Lichtash, executive director the Women’s Community Revitalization Project, a Community Development Corporation based in eastern North Philadelphia that has long campaigned for equitable and effective policies for otherwise blighted land.
Enter 7th District Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, who wants Philadelphia to create a “land bank” that would serve as a central clearinghouse for blighted land. It’s an idea that’s been tried in dozens of municipalities and counties and in several large cities, including Atlanta, St. Louis, and Cleveland — all of which have serious vacant land problems as well — which have boasted various successes: the Cuyahoga Land Bank boasts having acquired over a thousand properties and having conveyed several hundred for redevelopment.
On its most basic level, the land bank would be a quasi-governmental agency, overseen by a board appointed by the mayor and City Council, with the power to collect land and then turn around and sell it – at whatever cost – to anyone they think can put it back into productive use.
To understand the significance of this proposal, which currently exists only in the form of a bill proposed in City Council, it helps to have a little historical context.
For decades, the city’s policies for transforming vacant land have swung, like a pendulum, between two opposite ideas. Those two ideas can be summed up (very roughly) as: the strategic assembly strategy; and what we might call the “get-rid-of-it” strategy.
The pendulum swung toward “get-rid-of-it” under Mayor Ed Rendell, who avoided comprehensive land policies and favored selling off vacant land for immediate redevelopment deals.
It swung back the other way under Mayor John Street, who championed the ambitious, government-heavy Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, which sought to demolish blighted property and then condense land into larger parcels for bigger redevelopment projects. But while hundreds of blighted buildings were demolished, Street was never able to fully realize his goals of making the land more attractive to developers by assembling smaller parcels into bigger ones.
Rather than reversing the pendulum’s direction again, Mayor Michael Nutter more or less put his hand on it, effectively calling a halt to all but a small trickle of land transactions — and then only for “market rate” development. Projects that had relied on transfers of land for nominal fees — like side lots or urban farms — all but stopped altogether for the mayor’s first entire term in office.
Last year, Nutter did begin allowing for “non-market” uses of vacant land. For the first time in five years, for example, residents have been able to acquire side yards again. And he also took steps to simplify the process – unveiling a “front door” for residents who want to take responsibility for a city owned lot.
Behind the new “front door,” though, is the same tangled mess of city agencies and different policies as before. And these policies are only guaranteed to last as long as the mayor himself — which, at this point, isn’t that long at all.
Which leaves us with the same old broken tool for recycling blighted land that we’ve always had: sheriff sales.
That, say Lichtash and others, is one major reason the land bank is so important: it takes policy around vacant land from fickle mayor-to-mayor cycles and enshrines it in a new entity, the land bank, with some actual lasting power: the land bank should be able to maintain consistent policies as administrations come and go.
It’s a promise that has won broadening support, coalescing around the moniker the “Philly Land Bank Alliance,” which boasts more than a dozen groups, ranging from community organizing nonprofits to the Building Industry of Philadelphia. What they have in common is frustration with the current system, says Rick Sauer, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Community Development Corporations, which is hosting a shiny new website for the alliance and serving as its central organizing point.
“The CDCs, the for-profit developers, the community gardeners, the urban farmers, the small businesses … everyone has been dealing with this broken property system for too long,” says Sauer. “And now we actually have some momentum.”
Whether that momentum will be enough remains to be seen: A hearing on Quinones-Sanchez’ bill has yet to be scheduled, and the deadline for passing the measure before Council recesses for the summer is not very far away.
All of which has created a new sense of urgency among the land bank supporters, who see the tangled mess of blighted properties that now stress neighborhoods, foster crime and degrade values as the raw material for the green spaces, affordable housing, and urban farms that will build healthier neighborhoods.
“It’s a good bill, and we’ve got to get it passed before June” says Sauer. “We can’t afford not to do this now.”