Friday, May 22, 2015

Solve abandoned property woes? (Land) bank on it.

State Rep. John Taylor (R., Philadelphia) deserves applause for clearing a path so the city can more efficiently turn filthy, depressing, abandoned properties into homes, shops and gardens.

Solve abandoned property woes? (Land) bank on it.

Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez stands with her mother, Bienvenida Neris (Barbara Laker / Staff)
Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez stands with her mother, Bienvenida Neris (Barbara Laker / Staff)

State Rep. John Taylor (R., Philadelphia) deserves applause for clearing a path so the city can more efficiently turn filthy, depressing, abandoned properties into homes, shops and gardens.

His bill, which Gov. Corbett signed last week, allows the city to create a land bank. Using the bank, the city can consolidate about 9,000 properties owned by three different city agencies, each with its own Byzantine requirements for disposition. Once the land is deeded to the land bank, the city can package parcels for sale under a predictable, simplified set of rules so developers and residents can more easily buy it. The city also can sell properties for less than market value if it believes a developer's overall project will add value to a neighborhood. At the very least, the land will produce needed tax revenue.

Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez sponsored a companion land bank bill, with the support of several colleagues. Now that Taylor's bill is law, Sanchez says she can start hearings on her legislation in a few weeks.

The Nutter administration has been building towards this simplified property disposition system by designing what it calls a "front door." It consolidated the list of city-owned properties onto a single web page unveiled this summer. Buyers can now look at what's available and begin negotiations for purchase.

Already, a few hundred people have made requests to acquire the vacant lots next to their homes to use as side yards. They can buy the lots for transfer costs but must agree to maintain them and hold onto them for a decade. To keep owners behaving responsibly, the city will give them a mortgage in the amount of the fair market value of the lots. If buyers break the agreement, the buyers will have to pay off the mortgage. The city also is moving ahead with plans to use real estate brokers to sell some parcels that can fetch good prices in up-and-coming neighborhoods.

On another track, the city has stepped up blight enforcement targeting owners who hold many derelict properties as well as those who have neglected their properties in otherwise stable areas. So far, about half of the owners cited have repaired or sold their land and buildings.

For decades, vacant property has been a drag on the city's finances and sense of well-being. Taxpayers spend about $20 million to maintain the properties. There are about 40,000 vacant lots and buildings throughout the city, many of them held by owners who haven't paid taxes in years. And, the owners don't seem to care that their properties are breeding grounds for weeds, rats and insects as well as hiding places for drug dealers and muggers.

The situation hasn't been helped by the tangled city bureaucracy. Sanchez says it can take as long as 10 years to assemble a block of parcels and put land into a developer's hands. The land bank would be able to cut that timetable down to a couple of years.

Getting this far to solve such an obvious problem has taken too long, but it appears as if the momentum is finally here to tap the enormous economic potential of the city's real estate while improving residents' quality of life.

 

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