Too much vacancy

It comes up in Help Desk regularly: The blighted property that's causing problems for neighbors. Today the DN weighs in on a new report about abandoned parcels:

A funny thing happened on the way to the city's oblivion.

After decades of businesses' and residents' leaving the city, the city's decline seems to be in turnaround. A recent Pew report found that the flow of newcomers is rising far faster than the rate of out-goers, and, earlier this year, the Census Bureau estimated that the city's 2009 population was higher than the previous year's, and anticipates that the 2010 census will show a 30,000 gain from 2000's.

But there is a cloud to this silver lining: The city's failure to get on top of its blighted properties. A new report quantifies the devastating impact that the city's 40,000 vacant properties has on overall property values: $8,000 per household, or $3.6 billion total in lost value.

The report, commissioned by the Redevelopment Authority and the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, took the economic measure of the city's vacant land, and found not only how much each household suffers, but also how whole neighborhoods, and hence, the city as a whole, are harmed by the problem. Right out of the gate, the city must pay $20 million a year just to maintain these properties.

There are two main issues: 25 percent of the vacant land is owned by the city or public entities, like the RDA. As the report points out, within those city agencies, there is no centralized inventory-management system that tracks the number or status of vacant parcels.

The number of properties, in fact, comes from the Water Department, for parcels at which they have shut off water services. That lack of coordination means that anyone interested in purchasing and developing a lot must enter the maze of city government - finding the right agency, then dealing with different requirements and regulations.

Some headway is being made in better coordination, although it remains hard to understand why reforming government - and not just this city's - is still as daunting a task as dismantling a steam engine and converting it to an iPad.

But even this pales in comparison to the problems with the majority of vacant properties: Three-quarters are in private hands . . . or, should we say, delinquent hands.

The majority of privately held properties are tax-delinquent, and 90 percent have been so for more than 11 years. The city's failure to collect this $20 million in taxes or to streamline its sheriff's sale process has effectively created a rich breeding ground for blight.

And the mystery is that it's not for lack of trying to cope with this problem: Most recently, the Street administration banked its entire track record - and $300 million in bonds - on its Neighborhood Transition Initiative that was designed to eliminate blight. It obviously hasn't.

Quantifying the economic impact of blight should contribute to a better comprehension of what's at stake. But we can't help thinking something even more profound will be required: a better grasp of our value as a city. Property values aren't just the monetary measure of our worth; they also reflect how we value ourselves. How do we change the mind-set that allows 3,555 acres of our city (the equivalent of 5.5 square miles out of 135) to lie fallow and crumbling? That's a problem - and that problem is us.

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