Stories about development of city-owned property might give the impression that it’s only happening in the Second Council District, and that the system is broken beyond repair. But that impression is untrue and outdated.
The fact is that city-owned property sales happen all over Philadelphia, not just the Second District. For a long time, there were problems with the process, but recent changes have led to significant improvements.
To see clearly how far we’ve come, it’s helpful to understand where we started. When I was elected to City Council in 2011, the city had a convoluted land disposition process that had been around for years, the legacy of a long-shrinking city. It was a process I inherited, but I did my best to work within that process to fight for my vision for the Second District.
Specifically, I have supported the development of vacant lots to reduce blight, generate economic activity, and grow the city tax base. At the same time, I have looked for opportunities to promote housing affordability as land values skyrocketed in neighborhoods like Graduate Hospital and Point Breeze. My concern then and now has been: How do we promote growth and opportunity in the Second District while protecting long-term residents from displacement?
For that reason, my consistent, stated mission has always been to strike a balance between market-rate and affordable housing in our neighborhoods.
If a reputable organization or individual approaches the city with a request to purchase city-owned land to develop affordable housing, I have been inclined to support it when asked.
Unfortunately, under the system that I inherited, there were not enough safeguards in place to make sure that promises of affordable housing were delivered. A bad actor had too much opportunity to game the system in the interest of turning a profit. It was a citywide problem that went unresolved for too long.
Fortunately, that old system is in the past. The reformed process for selling city-owned property goes through the Land Bank, an initiative I supported and voted for in Council. With the Land Bank, anyone can express interest in a city-owned lot online. Land Bank policy requires competitive bidding for most city-owned land. If there are no competing bids, the price is generally set by an independent appraisal.
The Land Bank also vets potential recipients of city-owned land and their proposals. The Land Bank scores and selects bids to develop below-market-rate housing according to standardized, publicly available criteria. It requires a binding development agreement, a restrictive covenant on the deed, eligibility screening of potential buyers, and other safeguards that are stringent and clearly enforceable.
I have invested deeply in the Land Bank’s success. I was the second council member to transfer the vast majority (75%) of my district’s vacant city-owned lots to the Land Bank. The Land Bank’s RFP process has already led to two workforce housing projects in Point Breeze. In September 2017, the Land Bank finally got its first permanent executive director and general counsel, and they are already working hard for the Second District with my support. Very soon, they will be issuing a new workforce housing RFP for Point Breeze and listing 33 city-owned lots for competitive bid.
This is how land disposition works in the Second District. It’s the transparent, equitable, open land-use policy that Philadelphia deserves. And it has helped us strike the balance between market rate and affordable housing that I believe is critical to our growth. I believe my job is to serve all of my constituents, and that is what I’ll do as long as I have the privilege of representing the Second District in City Council.
Kenyatta Johnson is on Philadelphia City Council and represents the 2nd District. @CouncilmanKJ