Philadelphia will be the biggest American city to establish a municipal land bank once Mayor Nutter signs the land bank bill passed by City Council 15-0 last Thursday. The land bank will create a new path toward putting thousands of our 40,000 vacant, underused, blighted, delinquent properties to new uses. The magnitude of this opportunity is hard to overstate.
This marks the end of a long road for advocates who have worked to get a land bank passed for more than five years, but it is really the beginning. Now comes the hard work of implementing the Land Bank, developing its policies, creating a strategic plan, transferring properties into the Land Bank from city agencies, figuring out staffing and budget needs, and getting down to business.
“This is a major step forward. It’s worth celebrating,” said Rick Sauer, director of the Philadelphia Association for Community Development Corporations and spokesman for the Philly Land Bank Alliance. “Although that doesn’t mean the work is done.”
“It is really valuable legislation,” said Nora Lichtash, director of the Women’s Community Revitalization Project, member of both the Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land and Philly Land Bank Alliance. “In terms of the language that we wanted in, it is perfect,” she said, pointing to the bill’s reference to equity and fairness in the reuse of vacant property.
So in this moment just before the Land Bank moves from idea to implementation, let’s take a moment to reflect on five positive things that came with land bank legislation:
For the first time the city’s inventory of 9,000-12,000 (depending on who you ask) vacant, surplus properties will be held by one entity, instead of multiple agencies each with a different way of doing business. This consolidation will smooth the path for all potential buyers by creating faster, more straightforward transactions.
“That is one of the most significant things. Getting all of that inventory, or as much as possible, into one place under one set of rules,” said Sauer.
To make this work, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, Department of Public Property, and the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation will have to transfer their properties to the land bank and should do so fully. If properties are retained by individual agencies, there ought to be good reasons for doing so that are aired publicly.
One of the Land Bank’s most significant powers is the ability to strategically acquire tax-delinquent properties and clear title, thanks to a provision in the state enabling legislation. This power will allow the Land Bank’s work to go beyond the publicly-owned vacant properties to start tackling a portion of the city’s 30,000 privately held blighted parcels.
This power will enable the city to identify particular privately owned, tax delinquent properties, and use the tax sale process more wisely, as it assembles a number of lots for development. For example, if the city already owns 10 of 13 vacant parcels on one block, it can target those last three in order to bundle properties for redevelopment that avoids a gap-toothed approach.
A recent amendment to the land bank bill enables the Finance Director to manage the process of clearing liens for properties entering the land bank. That’s good because it assigns a specific member of the administration to oversee this process and serve as a point person to extinguish old liens before properties go into the Land Bank. It also means buyers of property through the Land Bank will be assured that liens predating their ownership won’t rear up at some point down the road.
Council President Clarke’s amendment to add Vacant Property Review Committee’s (VPRC) approval for all Land Bank transactions was a big point of contention in recent weeks, and was one that he ultimately would not budge on. While this additional layer of approval will add time to the process, the upside is that VPRC has now been pushed into the spotlight.
Provisions of the land bank bill specifically require VPRC to comply with the state’s sunshine laws for public meetings and sharing public information. The legislation states that VPRC is required to publish its agenda 10 days in advance of its meetings and publish a transcript of meetings afterwards, neither of which it has ever done. These requirements will help make this committee’s decision making open to broader public scrutiny.
Another measure of accountability is provided in the requirement for a strategic plan and annual reporting.
The Land Bank Strategic Plan will enable the city to be really intentional about how vacant properties should be reused in different neighborhoods. This plan will be a blueprint for how the Land Bank will achieve its goals, and help the city take a more deliberate approach to appropriate uses for vacant properties in different neighborhoods.
The benchmarks, goal-setting, and strategic planning mandated in the legislation were hard won and create a level of accountability that has been missing from vacant land dispositions.
In the next year the City Planning Commission will be enlisted to manage this strategic planning, and part of its charge according to the legislation is to make sure that the Land Bank Strategic Plan conforms to priorities already set in the city’s comprehensive plan, district plans in progress, and any accepted neighborhood plans. This will give the Land Bank reasons for its actions, targets to meet, and gives its activities a measure of credibility and responsibility. Before the plan is adopted there will be a public hearing with opportunity for public comment.
The planning process is also “another way for communities to have voice” in decisions about vacant land, Sauer pointed out. “That’s something we pushed for hard.”
Every year the Land Bank will have to report on its activities, which will help “track the success of the Land Bank with regards to how many properties get out the door” but also what benchmarks were hit in terms of community uses and economic development, Sauer explained.
So even though the Land Bank’s processes are “still a political process where Council retains oversight,” Lichtash noted, “We now have legislation that allows us to look very clearly at what they are doing versus what they say they are doing.”
The land bank bill makes room for a wide variety of land uses for properties acquired through the Land Bank, which means that the “highest-and-best use” in a purely economic sense will not always rule the day.
The legislation’s language about land uses, strategic planning, and pricing, “recognizes that creating healthy and sustainable neighborhoods require a real variety of end uses,” said Amy Laura Cahn, director of the Public Law Center of Philadelphia’s Garden Justice Legal Initiative. And that, Cahn said, is a major opportunity for neighbors to help envision new futures for vacant properties that suit their community’s needs and desires.
That means that opportunities for sustained housing affordability, greater accessibility, shared community uses, and urban agriculture/gardening will have a fighting chance against for-profit developers in more places. In part that’s also just a smart admission that market-rate development won’t work everywhere.
Advocates fought hard to ensure that there were seats for community representatives on the Land Bank Board. Four seats for community representatives on the board were ultimately included in the bill, and six are on the interim board. That’s not many, but it’s better than none.
Community and neighborhood groups are rightly concerned with having enough input into the land bank’s decision-making. Right now the mechanism for public comment on the strategic plan or land bank decisions is not clear, but that opportunity is a requirement.
The two coalitions who advocated for the Land Bank say there is sustained interest in sticking together to see that the Land Bank that is implemented is as successful as possible. And they’re ready to help neighbors understand the new system as it is developed.
“We are prepared to really stay on top of this,” Lichtash said. “People feel like they want to pay attention.”
One idea some are considering is to form some sort of community advisory group, possibly akin to the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, with broad representation to discuss and weigh in on land bank policies, plans, and transactions.
One of the questions Lichtash said she’d be asking is “How do we as citizens proactively look to ensure that folks are not hurt by progress?”
The push for the Philadelphia Land Bank was a remarkable process, advanced by two diverse coalitions. Critics rose up at the last second, some prompted to action by Council President Clarke’s office, to decry the lack of diversity in land use decision-makers as well as the land bank’s advocates. But that wasn’t entirely fair.
The Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land and the Land Bank Alliance represented diverse groups of people of different races, genders, ages, neighborhoods, and interests – from Nurses and neighborhood activists, designers and the disabled, to co-ops and community development corporations, realtors and religious groups. It was all over the map. This kind of inclusion and broad-based cooperation is rare and it will be interesting to see how these groups stick together over the long haul to ensure that the land bank is wisely developed and operated. Common ground is hard to maintain and there is a long road ahead.
“I think we were able to accomplish something big. It ended with some really good questions. How can we do this the best we can,” Cahn reflected. “Our work is really just beginning.”
Ashley Hahn is an independent writer with a background in historic preservation and city planning. She started Eyes on the Street for PlanPhilly in 2011 and was PlanPhilly's managing editor from 2015-2017. Ashley has lived in 12 zip codes that she can think of, including neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and New York. She is a Philadelphian by choice.