Going once, going twice: Auction of blighted Philly lots is a big hit

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The auction of city-owned lots attracted 93 bidders and brought in nearly twice the $1 million hoped for by its organizer, City Councilman Mark Squilla. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)

Jim Nichols came to the auction ready to spend. But his $6,000 limit - more than twice the advertised opening bid for the vacant lot at 2646 Ritter St. in Kensington - never stood a chance.

"Wow," he said, his auction card wrapped tightly in his hand, where it would remain as a man in the front bid $10,000. "It's because they're building over that whole street."

The number swelled higher, then stopped - "Sold!" - at $25,000.

Nichols hadn't seen that coming. And neither had the auction's organizer, City Councilman Mark Squilla, who had hoped Friday's modest sale of city-owned lots in his district would bring in $1 million.

But 93 bidders showed up. And when three hours of bidding under the direction of a fast-talking Florida auctioneer was done, the city had made $1.78 million on 89 properties.

The unprecedented sale seemed to offer a lively and entirely unbureaucratic way to handle an otherwise onerous task. It's one Philadelphia has struggled with in recent years: how to unload the city's huge stock of vacant, delinquent, or blighted land, and get it back on the tax rolls.

One recent idea, the Philadelphia Land Bank, which was intended to make it easier for properties owned by various city agencies to be sold together, has struggled to get off the ground.

The 157 properties Squilla chose for auction were owned by the Redevelopment Authority, the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp., and the city. Squilla, whose district stretches east of Broad Street and includes parts of South and Northeast Philadelphia, said the auction was such a success he would consider doing it again.

His colleagues on City Council, he said, could do the same.

"We have to find ways to get additional resources into this city," Squilla said. "If we could help fund some of our schools through some of this, if we could build our tax base by doing this, I think it's a win-win all the way around."

Dozens of buyers packed the muggy Center City conference room Friday, where staffers in business suits snaked between the aisles, pointing out bidders the second they raised their numbers.

The out-of-town auctioneer barely blinked as he butchered street names. "Kingsen-, Kingsen-, Kingsenton Avenue. Here we go, 3342 Kingsenton Avenue." He was aiming for Kensington Avenue.

Between sales, a DJ turned up the music, then faded it out as the next lot came on the block.

2730 Emerald St. $7,000. Sold.

"Well, she was an American girl. Raised on promises. . . ."

 

2767 Coral St. $2,450. Sold.

"She couldn't help thinkin' that there was a little more to life somewhere else. . . ."

 

Other times, there were long stretches with no takers. Eleven properties on East William Street in Kensington attracted no interest.

The auctioneer tried to make a hard sell on another lot. "Give it away as a Christmas gift for $1,050," he told the crowd, which didn't budge.

Some lots sold for the opening price (the smallest sale was $1,750), while others topped out at nearly 20 times more. (A vacant lot on East Sargent Street in Kensington was listed for $3,500 and sold for $65,000.)

The biggest sale, a vacant lot on Salmon Street in Port Richmond, brought $120,000.

Despite the day's success, an auction might be a hard sell to others on Council, where members hold "councilmanic prerogative," a right to approve or deny the sale of city lots in their district.

But one councilwoman who had expressed skepticism about some aspects of transferring lots into the land bank said Friday that she could get behind an auction like Squilla's.

"This program is signed, sealed, and delivered," said Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell of West Philadelphia. "They did it right away. It's a hands-on approach. It's a great idea."

She added that Squilla was able to pick what properties were sold based on feedback from the community.

Squilla said that up until the day before the auction, his office was pulling properties off the list because neighbors or community groups had expressed interest but said they weren't ready to buy.

He said some homeowners who have long used vacant lots beside their properties as side yards heard about the auction and are now in the process of buying those properties.

Squilla said he was concerned some lots would sell to buyers who would hang onto them for years without building. So the terms of the sales require that the lots be developed in a set timeline, in many cases within 18 months.

"I didn't want people coming from outside of the city, buying all of these lots, and holding onto them for 10, 15 years," he said. "That doesn't help us."


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