Philly's Vacant Land Problem Costs the City -- and Residents -- Big Time

Philly’s persistent abandoned property problem has reduced the value of your home by an average of $8,000, according to a new study.

The report from Econsult Corporation puts Philadelphia’s blighted land troubles into stark economic terms, estimating that the city’s more than 40,000 vacant or abandoned properties rack up $20 million in annual maintenance costs, rob the city of $2 million in annual tax revenues and reduce property values across the city.

To read a PDF of the report click here.

“Vacancy is a citywide problem. No neighborhood escapes the problem of vacancy,” said Richard Voith, of Econsult, who did the study on behalf of the Redevelopment Authority and the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations (PACDC).

Armed with a new study about an old problem, the Nutter administration is still figuring out what to do next, after a series of anti-blight programs, including former Mayor John Street’s $296 million Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, have not successfully turned things around.

Mayor Nutter has put Managing Director Rich Negrin in charge of a task force charged with analyzing the city’s vacant land management and offering recommendations. Negrin’s Chief of Staff Brian Abernathy yesterday acknowledged that initially the task seemed daunting.

“When we first started to take a look at this over the summer, overwhelmed is the way to describe how Rich and everyone felt,” Abernathy said.

Abernathy said city officials are working on key questions, like how to manage foreclosures, bundle lots for development and clean up vacant land. He said the city is already working on a master list of all the city-owned vacant property, as well as a list of the privately held abandoned property.

“At the very least, we need to make sure there’s a seemless entry point (for developers or interested buyers),” Abernathy said.

Dealing with blighted land in Philadelphia is a complicated task. Only about 25 percent of the vacant or abandoned land is city owned — and those properties are split between several agencies. About half of the privately-held properties owe back taxes. Sometimes they go to sheriff’s sale, but often they just decay.

Abernathy and other officials said they hadn’t zeroed in on a plan for vacant land yet. One example that has been heralded is in Genesee County, home to Flint, the government set up a land bank, which takes control of abandoned and tax-foreclosed properties and decides the best usage for the city – be it to sell to a developer, give to a community group or maintain the land itself.

But officials and stakeholders won't yet commit to putting all the land management under one agency.

“The city needs to figure out what makes sense,” said Rick Sauer, executive director of PACDC.

Mayor Street made reducing blight a central goal of his administration, creating the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. The program leveraged $296 million in bond money, with plans to tear down crumbling buildings, package cleared lots together and get them to developers.

Street’s administration reduced the number of blighted buildings and encouraged development, but critics noted that it fell far short of his goal to demolish 14,000 buildings.