Three years after the creation of the Philadelphia Land Bank, fewer than 50 vacant tax-delinquent properties have been acquired for reuse - out of thousands of eligible lots that depress neighborhoods and burden taxpayers.
It is past time to remove all lingering impediments and adhere to policies and procedures that expedite the assembly of land to improve neighborhoods and strengthen the tax base.
State lawmakers enacted legislation enabling creation of the Philadelphia Land Bank so that it could be used as a tool for the city and its citizens, together, to shape balanced neighborhood development. By pooling formerly scattered vacant parcels, officials and community groups could more effectively strategize best reuses for these abandoned lots.
Further, the Land Bank would allow the city to acquire vacant tax-delinquent parcels in gentrifying neighborhoods and designate them for homes that low- and middle-income people could afford - commonly referred to as affordable and workforce housing - which would help achieve our overall goal of demographically inclusive communities.
Throughout the mayoral transition, it was Council's expectation that we would continue to collaboratively work toward this vision for Philadelphia. Instead, we begin the new year concerned by the Revenue Department's decision to ignore the Land Bank's strategic plans for vacant properties.
In the course of our work with community stakeholders in 2016, my office requested that 260 vacant tax-delinquent properties in the Fifth District be held for review by the Land Bank. Instead, the Revenue Department sent 113 parcels directly to auction, bypassing Land Bank review for strategic or community-oriented reuse. In some cases, the Land Bank had already reviewed and identified parcels for affordable housing, workforce housing, or green space.
Many of the parcels that were auctioned off are located in thriving neighborhoods where new, market-rate housing is not affordable to low- and middle-income families. Instead of expanding access to amenities associated with high-income neighborhoods, such as good schools and fresh food, the city has reinforced residential economic segregation.
Parcels also may have been sold to speculators who had no immediate, constructive plans for them.
When City Council reconvenes on Thursday, I plan to introduce a resolution calling for a moratorium on lien and sheriff sales of vacant, tax-delinquent land and a review of Revenue Department and Office of Property Assessment procedures, including inconsistencies in their data. The resolution will also authorize public hearings on the Land Bank and strategies to better support balanced and equitable neighborhood growth.
A moratorium is drastic, but Philadelphia cannot afford to go back to its old, inefficient approach to development.
For context, 10 new townhomes in Fairmount reportedly sold for as much as $2 million each in just eight months last year. A new luxury apartment complex on the Parkway is leasing units for as much as $7,000 per month. The apartment search site Abodo found that average monthly rent in Philadelphia rose 4.2 percent in 2016 - the second-highest increase in the nation.
Robust high-end housing growth is a great indicator for Philadelphia's overall economic health, one that we should cheer. But it doesn't tell the whole story.
Far too many Philadelphians struggle to pay for housing or are stuck in substandard homes that literally make them sick. If the city is truly serious about equitable growth - one of the main reasons we created the Land Bank in the first place - then it must offer incentives much more selectively and strategically.
We must not allow Philadelphia to fall back into bad habits. I look forward to an inclusive and participatory public hearing on my proposal to temporarily halt lien and sheriff sales in order to thoroughly review Land Bank, Revenue Department, and Office of Property Assessment procedures.
Darrell L. Clarke is president of Philadelphia City Council. Darrell.Clarke@phila.gov