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The scene in Council was indeed a confusing one: longtime supporters of the land bank testified on behalf of the bill even though they’d recently voiced disapproval of many of the amendments being voted upon.
Then there was the parade of speakers who had come, at the encouragement of the office of Council President Darrell Clarke, to outline their concerns about the bill. Some had remarks prepared outlining why they opposed it. But, after news broke late Wednesday that Clarke and the bill’s chief sponsor, Maria Quinones Sanchez had reached a deal, they wound up giving vague statements in support of the new bill.
When Council voted to approve the new amendments — which largely reflected changes that give Council in general, and Clarke in particular, more power – supporters of the land bank applauded, even while some observers took to Twitter saying the land bank had already been fatally compromised.
So: did Philadelphia just take a historic, unprecedented step toward solving its massive vacant land problems? Or did Council just vote for more of the same stagnation the city’s had for years?
The answer is both and neither – or perhaps better answered as “it depends.”
Why Council’s vote is a big deal:
The problem of how the city deals with its estimated 40,000 parcels of vacant land has vexed city officials, Council members, civic groups, developers, and ordinary folks for decades. It’s a kind of mega-problem made up of a slew of smaller problems, each of which is convoluted. There’s the problem of changing administrations and their ever-swinging philosophies on the city’s role when it comes to vacant land. Mayor Ed Rendell wanted to sell it; Mayor John Street wanted to assemble it, and Mayor Michael Nutter effectively split the difference for years by delegating the question to administrative teams that only last year unveiled the city’s “front door” for the acquisition of vacant land.
Behind the “front door,” though, remains a tangle of thousands of properties –just a fraction of the tens of thousands of privately-owned vacant properties in the city – held by various city agencies, each with its own restrictions, policies, and politics around sales.
The land bank would be significantly different for a few reasons.
For one, it can do something none of those other agencies can. As empowered by a new law introduced by State Rep. John Taylor, it can make debt disappear.
The significance is hard to overstate. Much of the city’s vacant and blighted parcels of land are buried in debt, mostly from back taxes owed, inflating the cost of purchasing them to levels that don’t make sense for a buyer. Currently, the city’s only tool for wiping that debt clean is to take the properties to auction by the Philadelphia Sheriff – a process which adds layers of uncertainty, insider edge, and cost to a sale.
Sheriff sales can be incredibly difficult for the layperson to navigate and require cash deposits, giving obvious advantage to speculators. They favor only the highest bidder on a piece of land — not the best proposal for how to use it – and frequently result in vacant lots remaining just that as the new owners sit on the properties waiting for the day when they can get a higher price.
The land bank can circumvent much of that process by buying up properties itself, wiping them clean of debt, and reselling them according its own policies, which it can make up from scratch. It would be the only agency in the city with broad powers of acquisition and disposition, a mission for redevelopment, and a public process to develop its own policies.
And those policies wouldn’t depend – at least not entirely – on whoever happens to be mayor, as is currently the case.
An illustrative example of the significance of that is the city’s elusive “side lot” program, which has come and gone and come and gone again with changing administrations. Shortly after becoming mayor, Nutter effectively suspended sales of public land for less than “market value,” while the administration worked for years on a new policy. The side-yard program finally resurfaced again last year, much unchanged from its last incarnation under Mayor Street.
The land bank, though, will be run by a board appointed by Council and the mayor – and can set policies that would outlast changing administrations.
For all the contention over amendments to the land bank bill, Council will, if it votes “aye” on Thursday, create a tool that can be and do things that have never been and been done in Philadelphia before.
Why Council’s vote is not a big deal:
All that said, Council’s vote yesterday – and its anticipated final vote on the land bank bill next week – doesn’t immediately change anything.
For starters, there is the issue of Council’s power and the “Councilmanic prerogative,” – the oft-maligned requirement that all sales of city land be approved by Council in the form of a resolution, which in practice gives district Council members veto power over every sale in their district. All versions of the land bank proposed in Council have included some form of this power, but amendments by Council President Clarke maintain an additional hurdle – approval by the Vacant Property Review Committee, the agenda of which is set by an appointee of the Council President. That gives the President, or a Council member with the President’s ear, the ability to hold up a property sale indirectly. Opponents of the amendment said that VPRC added another hurdle to quick disposition pf a sale, but Clarke insisted on its inclusion and it is in the final version of the bill.
But more importantly, what the land bank will be is still essentially an open question.
The land bank that would be created next week will start its life as a bunch of people – the board of directors – and little more. To do anything, the land bank will need behind it staff, funding, a plan, and political will.
And it’s that last one that will matter the most. The land bank could transform how Philadelphia uses and repurposes its vacant land; it could also turn into just one more frustrating partial-solution to the problem.
Council has a big role to play: Council will approve the land bank’s policies, appoint much of its board, and oversee its budget.
But for all the controversy around Council’s role, much of what happens next – maybe most of it – depends not on Council but on the city administration, which will staff the land bank and implement its policies.
That means that much of what the land bank will be depends on Mayor Nutter. Nutter has pledged support of the land bank and appears to want to see its establishment become part of his legacy – but that support has been less than giddy so far, and with the approach of the end of his second term it will only get harder to accomplish big things and mobilize an administration whose senior members will inevitably be looking to their next gig.
This is where the “it depends” part comes into play in a major way. It looks as if we will have a land bank law soon. The actual land bank lies in the future.
Council has essentially poured a foundation – but the land bank board will have to come up with a blueprint, and the city will have to build the house.