People's Board: Time for a Land Bank

WE THE PEOPLE were horrified by the recent fire at the Thomas W. Buck Hosiery building. But we didn’t need the tragedy to remind us of how big a problem vacant and abandoned properties are in this city. Philadelphians see it every day.

How could we miss it? There are an estimated 40,000 such parcels in Philadelphia, including 10,000 owned by us taxpayers. Many suffer from neglect, and their owners don’t pay their taxes. In addition to harming neighborhoods and reducing property values, these properties cost the city $20 million per year in maintenance. A big part of the problem is that different city agencies have authority over different properties, so potential buyers face a confusing maze of red tape and rules.

The Nutter administration has begun to address the problem. Very soon, it will roll out a single “Front Door” to simplify the purchase process for potential buyers.

The People’s Editorial Board thinks the city should think even bigger and take bolder steps to tackle this problem. One step would be to establish a land bank, as Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez has proposed. A land bank would consolidate ownership of all city property, actively manage it, work to optimize future development, and take control of private tax-delinquent properties.

We support this bold idea in principle, but there are two key questions worth discussing:

Who should the land bank sell to? Everyone on our Board agrees that the land bank should not transfer property to people who can’t be trusted to put it to good use, such as folks who have recently been tax delinquent or have a record of owning derelict properties.

After the background check, some of our members believe, the bank should simply sell property to the highest bidder. Others on the board think that it makes more sense for the land bank to have a review board that approves buyers based on how well their plans conform with land-use plans and community-development objectives — especially when a significant parcel is at stake. The Sanchez bill, as currently written, includes such a review board.

What’s the role of Council? A land bank will have the potential to become a powerful vehicle for corruption, especially if it’s not required to sell property to the highest bidder. Valuable properties could be routed to campaign contributors or political allies; political enemies could be shut out.

That’s why the role of Council is such an important consideration.

In the Sanchez bill, Council members are given the ability to veto sales in their districts, formalizing the problematic practice of Councilmanic privilege. We all agree: This is too much power.

It’s true that District Council members could use their role in the land bank to advocate for the best interest of their communities. But there is just too much risk here of city-owned land being used as a trading chip — and too much history in Philadelphia of exactly that kind of behavior.

A land bank, done right, could be a major tool for the improvement of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, pushing vacant properties into productive ownership, or for properties that aren’t ready for market and maintaining them. But for this land bank to be done right, Council’s role needs to be scaled back.