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The 2100 block of Harlan St. looks like a wasteland. Running east and west between Master and Jefferson Streets, the whip-thin thoroughfare is home to eight vacant lots so neglected that the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) has issued citations. With tree-sized weeds still swaying in the wind, it’s clear that the property owner hasn’t addressed the violations. In this case, the owner doesn’t have to, because these blighted lots are owned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.

In neighborhoods throughout the city, properties owned by government or quasi-government agencies are being cited by L&I for vacancy-related violations,such as broken widows and doors and high grass. But unlike private property owners, public entities cited for such violations are not subject to court action. That means the city doesn’t collect court fees or fines for those violations. Nor does it collect property taxes on those parcels.

Records obtained by AxisPhilly through a Right to Know request show that at least 1,899 of the approximately 8,000 properties owned by government or quasi-government agencies were cited by the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) for vacancy-related violations in the past year. That amounts to nearly one out of four.

The violations show that government agencies, while paying millions to support programs to fight blight, are often the very landowners whose properties are blighted.

At a time when the School District of Philadelphia, which depends heavily on property taxes, is facing a deficit nearing $304 million, the city can ill afford to have 8,000 government-owned vacant properties that don’t generate tax revenue. Nor can it afford to have nearly 1,900 of those properties receiving blight citations that do not generate fines or judgments.

“[L&I] cites properties owned by government and quasi-government agencies the same we way cite all other properties,” said L&I spokesperson Rebecca Swanson. “We don’t have a list [of publicly owned property]. We obviously have access to ownership information because the citations are mailed to the owner of the property in addition to being posted on the property itself.”

That means L&I pays for an inspector to go to the property, generates copies of the violation to be affixed to the property, and pays to mail a copy to the government agency that owns the property. Although taxpayers pay for that process to be carried out, public entities are never hauled into court. There is no enforcement.

Meanwhile, the city has amassed $1.6 million in permits fees, fines and judgments against private property owners cited for blight-related violations in the last two years.

1300 N. 19th St. is owned by  PRA. The vacant lot has been cleaned and greened by Philadelphia LandCare

1300 N. 19th St. is owned by PRA. The vacant lot has been cleaned and greened.

To be fair, some publicly owned blighted parcels are addressed by the Philadelphia LandCare program, which refurbishes vacant lots only after they are cited by L&I. But many government owned parcels are not cleaned and greened, which means that blocks like Harlan Street become virtual ghost towns where government or quasi-government agencies sit on blighted property without penalty. The list of public agencies that have been cited for doing so is extensive.

The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (RDA), which is deeply involved in the city’s effort to dispose of vacant property, has had at least 335 properties cited for vacancy-related violations in the last year. The Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation (PHDC) has had 257 properties cited. The District Attorney’s office has had 11 properties cited. The City of Philadelphia and its Department of Public Property has had 509 properties cited. And the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has had 102 of its properties cited.

Among the agencies whose properties have been cited in the last year, the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), with at least 685 of its properties receiving vacancy-related violations, owns the most.

PHA oversees and manages Philadelphia’s public housing. In many ways, the agency is emblematic of the government and quasi-government agencies dealing with massive inventories of blighted properties. The blighted properties owned by PHA didn’t become that way overnight. They became blighted as a result of a vast array of problems Philadelphia has faced over the last half-century.

“PHA acquired the majority of our scattered sites in the 60s and 70s as the City’s population was rapidly declining due to flight of industry and suburbanization,” said PHA spokesperson Nichole Tillman. “Many of the properties were old even at that time. So, advanced age and declining federal funding for rehabilitation led to vacancy and eventual demolition.”

Paul Chrystie, of the Office of Community Development, echoes those reasons.

Three vacant lots at 1306, 1308 and 1310 N. 19th St. are owned by PRA and have been cited for violations by L&I (Photo by Solomon Jones).

Three vacant lots at 1306, 1308 and 1310 N. 19th St. are owned by PRA and have been cited for violations by L&I (Photo by Solomon Jones).

“The [properties have] been acquired over literally decades,” Chrystie said. “It’s not as if 5 years ago we had zero and now we have 8,000. This goes back to big urban renewal strategies of the 60s. Some of the properties were acquired for projects that didn’t take place. There are several hundred in Logan that were the result of the Logan homes falling down. There’s a whole host of reasons over decades that they came into public ownership.”

However the parcels came to be publicly owned, one thing is clear: The only way these properties can generate tax revenue is to sell or transfer them to private owners.

The city has adopted a number of policies to try to make that happen. Among them is PhillyLandWorks, a website where publicly owned property is available for purchase.

“Whether for development or a community garden or a property owner looking to acquire a lot next to their house for a sideyard, those properties are available online with the goal of making them productive,” Chrystie said, adding that the site has simplified the formerly complicated process of buying public property.

PHA has tried another method that has been somewhat successful. Through its 6 in 5 Development Initiative, which involves new construction in areas with amenities, as well as disposition to other affordable housing developers, the agency has begun to auction off vacant property.

To date, PHA has held 3 auctions. The first, in Nov. 2011, featured over 400 properties, most of which were bundled. The second took place a month later and featured 100 individual properties. In July of this year PHA had nearly 200 vacant properties on the auction block, and raised approximately $2.1 million. The auctions have been lauded as successes.

But then there are blocks like Harlan Street, where publicly owned blight sits untaxed, unused, and unaddressed. Such blocks produce the kind of shadows that allow crime to fester and grow, just as surely as the weeds that spring from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority’s vacant and blighted lots.

It’s unacceptable for public entities to own 1,900 vacant parcels that are blighted. Moreover, it’s unfair for those public entities to be treated differently than private property owners.

I’m calling on the city to address this basic inequity. And if the only real solution is to sell that publicly held property, then the city must move faster to make that happen.