After years of talking the talk about getting a land bank in Philadelphia, where blight scars entire neighborhoods, City Council started Monday to walk the walk.

On a 6-1 vote, Council's Committee on Public Property and Public Works approved a bill to establish a land bank. The bill still needs a vote of the full Council.

If it approves, Philadelphia would become the largest city with a land bank. Land banks streamline the process for rescuing blighted property, whether by homeowners who want to turn a vacant lot next door into a garden or developers who hope to buy clusters of houses to make way for a major project.

One expert said Philadelphia was better equipped than some cities with land banks, such as Flint, Mich.; Cleveland; and St. Louis.

"People who expected land banks to turn around cities like Flint have been disappointed," said Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington. "Philadelphia has made incredible strides in the last 10 to 15 years in stabilizing its population and re-creating a strong housing market."

Mallach, who has studied land banks around the nation, was one of more than two dozen people who testified Monday.

Vacant property in Philadelphia may be acquired through a maze of agencies and methods, such as sheriff's sales and foreclosure. But the process can be trying. "It's an even more daunting challenge if you are trying to assemble multiple properties for a redevelopment project," said Rick Sauer, executive director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations.

A quarter of Philadelphia's 40,000 vacant and abandoned properties are owned by the city and its various agencies. The rest are privately owned.

A 2012 state law, sponsored by Rep. John Taylor (R., Phila.), empowers cities to start land banks. The Nutter administration is on board, too. But a last-minute amendment to the bill, adding a new layer of officialdom, was not well received by some land bank supporters.

The bill was amended to say that when the land bank wants to sell or transfer a property, it needs an OK from the Vacant Property Review Committee (VPRC) - which includes administration officials and two Council members - as well as a resolution from Council.

"We'll have the same process we have today, which is dysfunctional and doesn't get enough properties out on the streets," Councilman Bill Green said afterward. "So it's disappointing, but it's a step in the right direction."

The bill "is a very big policy change," the committee's chairman, Councilman Bobby Henon, said.

The bill's sponsor, Maria Quiñones Sánchez, who has worked on the issue since joining Council in 2008, said she would work with colleagues to "flush out" remaining concerns, such as the extent of Council's role in approving land bank transactions.

 
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