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Giovanni Bega has an idea for what might be done with the gaping weedy vacant lot – rather, eight adjacent vacant parcels — at the end of his neighborly little street on the 2100 block of Bellmore Ave, wedged between Frankford Avenue and the nearby Conrail tracks.
“Anything!” he emphasized to a reporter as kids played up and down the block in the melting sunset. “Make it a playground, anything!”
Belkis Rodriguez, block captain, offered only the subtlest variation on that theme: “Something!” she said, gesticulating toward the lot. “Not like that!”
But it’s been like that, for decades, as far as city records show. The last time deeds were transferred on the lots was before 1979, when the Philadelphia Department of Records began keeping digital records.
That’s the last year for which the city shows real estate tax balance information as well, and all eight properties have been tax delinquent for every year since then. Because the lots have been valued at so little, fifteen years’ worth of non-payment has resulted in liens totaling just about $1,450 for each – or $11,600 total. The amount due in unpaid utility bills and other liens isn’t immediately accessible.
That the empty space has been a blighting influence on the neighborhood is evident, not just from neighbors’ accounts but from records from the Department of Licenses and Inspections, which has cited the properties for various violations of codes requiring that they be kept up, all issued during the Nutter administration. Since there’s no one around to act on those violations, the lots were tidied up by the city’s Community Life Improvement Project (CLIP), for which the city typically bills the property’s owner – the owner who, in this case, is long gone.
The space at the end of the 2100 block of Bellmore represents exactly the kinds of challenges Philadelphia’s up against in trying to get a handle on the tens of thousands of vacant and abandoned properties across the city.
It also demonstrates flaws in the primary method the city has for acting upon upon blighted, tax-delinquent lots, which is selling them at sheriff sale – or trying to, anyway.
The Bellmore properties came to the attention of AxisPhilly because they appeared on a map quietly released a few weeks ago by Linebarger, Goggan Blair & Samson, LLP, one of two private law firms that collect back taxes for the city, after it faced questions from City Council about why so many old taxes remain uncollected.
The map, presumably intended by Linebarger to help answer that question, shows properties that it has taken to sheriff sale on behalf of the city – but on which no one bid.
Figuring out why, exactly, gets a little complicated. The information supplied by Linebarger includes the value of each property, according to the city’s Office of Property Assessment, as well as the dollar amount of delinquency – but not the date it was auctioned or the minimum bid offered. AxisPhilly could find records for only two of those properties, those closest to actual occupied housing, which were offered at prices starting just below and just above the total taxes owed (about $5,100 and $3,800 respectively).
It’s not clear whether the properties were undesirable at that price, or whether they simply aren’t worth anything at all on the open market. It’s also not clear whether the remaining parcels were offered as one package or separately, on separate dates.
And as far as block captain Rodriguez is concerned, she’d rather see the lots sold to someone on her block or put to some public use than to see them sold off to another absentee owner: “We want them,” she emphasizes.
What is clear is that in this city, there exists a universe of vacant and abandoned property for which the current mechanisms in place for collecting debt and turning properties over to new owners on the private market simply don’t work.
It’s the flip side of Philadelphia’s massive problem with tax delinquencies, as outlined in a recent series by PlanPhilly and the Inquirer, which pointed to the many property owners across the city who have neither paid, nor paid any consequences for not paying. This is a world of property that is, as things stand, worthless.
And it’s that very lack of value that’s been increasingly the focus of attention by some members of Council, especially Council President Darrell Clarke and 7th District Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, both of whom have introduced various measures that they say would create value where none exists now. Clarke’s measures include “redevelopment districts” where land would be sold at discounted prices to buyers with shovel-ready development plans; Quinones-Sanchez is the prime sponsor of the bill that would create a land bank. The land bank, which would give government wide power to acquire property, forgive all debt, and then sell it off to new owners without having to go through Sherrif’s sale, is getting increasing support from a growing coalition of frustrated community groups, housing advocates, and urban farmers.
Cracking down on tax deadbeats sitting on valuable property is certainly part of the solution to Philly’s land problems. But it’s only one piece of the puzzle, and improving collections won’t do much to address the land (and there’s a lot of it) which has no owner to collect from, nor any prospective owner to buy it.
As the city and Council grapple with these problems, that land— which has mattered so little for so long — will matter quite a lot.