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Just a year ago, the coalition forming around the idea of a Philadelphia “land bank,” a legal entity that would be a clearinghouse for vacant and abandoned property, consisted largely of two groups: nonprofit affordable housing developers and enthusiastic urban farmers. What brought them together was a shared desire for access to land — especially vacant land.
But here’s a sure sign that coalition is growing: Philadelphia’s private real estate industry — a group whose values are hardly aligned, and often opposed, to the interests of nonprofits and open-space preservers — has announced that it’s on board with the land bank, too.
You wouldn’t necessarily have known that from the speech Alan Domb, president of the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors, gave to Philadelphia’s City Council as it heard from various stakeholders regarding what to do about Philadelphia massive tax delinquency problem.
In his testimony, Domb advocated two strategies for Philadelphia to get out of the cycle of delinquency and blight it seems to be stuck in. First: Privatize all collections of taxes, rather than leave the bulk of that responsibility to city government. Second: Sell as much property as possible, as quickly as possible, and as cheaply as necessary.
“I would hire a private company, a private auctioneer … to come into each Councilmanic district, auction off 100 properties at a time in one shot,” Domb testified, adding that he wasn’t particularly concerned about who was buying. “It could be owner-occupants; it could be investors.”
Nonprofit developers and would-be urban farmers, on the contrary, care very much about who is able to buy what land, and about preserving land from speculation and market-rate-only development.
And the land bank, as proposed by Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, embodies many of those concerns. It would be run by a board that could review the merit of various proposed uses (and prices) of land, much in the way the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustments hears cases. The land bank would allow property to be sold at less than market value for a variety of purposes, including affordable housing, green space, urban farms, and other uses. And it would be able in many cases to preempt the kind of market-driven free-for-all Domb would seem to advocate. (Though it can also auction off properties in the manner described by Domb, if its board so chooses).
And yet Domb’s organization, the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors, supports Sanchez’ bill. Why?
“It wasn’t our first choice,” Domb admitted to AxisPhilly over the phone. “We’d prefer to see the city hire an auctioneer … but given the situation right now, we decided the land bank is the better alternative.”
When it comes down to it, he says, Domb and the Realtors he represents are so frustrated with the slow pace at which the administration has dealt with vacant and tax-delinquent land that they’d prefer to see the establishment of a new entity.
What’s more, Domb points out, the land bank would have substantial power to waive municipal debts on a property, potentially bringing hundreds or thousands of properties currently mired in debt and liens to the market.
The land bank plan, to be sure, faces resistance. The administration has been conspicuously quiet about whether it would support such a plan, and many community groups and residents are wary about whether the land bank’s board — which will consist mostly of people appointed by Council or the mayor — will really represent the interests of their communities.
Still, the Realtors group is just one of a surprisingly wide spectrum of nonprofits, trade groups, and community organizations to join the “Philly Land Bank Alliance,” the latest and broadest coalition backing the idea. The Alliance is coordinated by PACDC, which launched a new website this week, Phillylandbank.org, to promote the effort.
It’s a sign, perhaps, of the level of frustration felt over the lack, five years into the tenure of Mayor Michael Nutter, of a coherent or even consistent strategy for “recycling” tax delinquent, blighted, and abandoned property back into productive use.
And that frustration seems to be drawing more interest in the land bank all the time. Even Christopher Sawyer, the ultra-vocal blogger and anti-blight activist behind Philadelinquency.com – and who has not been shy to portray the land bank as just another power play by city insiders — has changed his mind.
“The finance department and the sheriff are a marriage of ineptitude — you saw them just taking turns blaming each other,” he told AxisPhilly. “The land bank puts a stop button on it all — it creates a new path.”