Council approves eminent domain of 1,300 properties in Sharswood
In a near unanimous vote on Thursday, City Council passed a bill that gives the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) permission to eminent domain over 1,300 properties in the Sharswood neighborhood.
The sole nay vote came from Councilman Dennis O’Brien.
The eminent domain process will be but one part of PHA’s $500 million, multi-phase plan to redevelop Sharswood, located north of Girard College and south of Cecil B. Moore Ave. It is a large-scale project that was born in 2013 after PHA received a federal neighborhood improvement grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Currently, PHA is preparing phase one: the demolition of the Norman Blumberg projects, which will be replaced with 57 units of mixed-rate rental housing.
The land acquisition approved by Council will be used in redevelopment phases down the road after PHA has secured more funding. The bill grants PHA permission to seize properties under the condition that they pay fair market value to the private owners. It does not, however, mean that PHA will proceed in acquiring all 1,300. It may choose to drop seizure of certain parcels.
The lion's share of these properties are badly blighted and tax delinquent. But for lower-income property owners, eminent domain could spell a loss.
Meanwhile, many residents are still questioning PHA's competency to take on such a historic project.
Adam Lang, a Republican ward leader and 10-year Sharswood resident, presented one of the two final appeals before Council voted. He raised concern over PHA and the city’s bad property management record.
“The claim [for the eminent domain] is that the neighborhood is blighted and needs help, but the claim ignores why the neighborhood has so much blighted property,” Lang said.
Some 500 of the 1,330 properties under eminent domain are being transferred to PHA from the city, and some 200 more are being seized back from private owners just two years after they were auctioned.
If PHA successfully seizes all of the condemned properties it has proposed, the agency will own roughly an entire six-by-four block area — one-third of the Sharswood neighborhood. Lang's argument is that, unless all the funding is on the table, these long-vacant lots will likely continue to sit vacant for another decade, thwarting private development in the neighborhood.
“This is a city that has demonstrated it can’t handle property management itself,” his testimony concluded. “What we need to focus on for Sharswood is actually letting private investment develop the neighborhood, not a single agency trying to develop the whole land.”
Throughout their planning process, PHA has worked with community members to get consensus. PHA President Kelvin Jeremiah understands the agency’s poor record of land management, but promises that this project is different.
"We have not always been a good landlord. We have not always been a good partner,” Jeremiah told WHYY’s Newsworks. “That’s the old PHA. That's not the new PHA.”
While PHA held some 40 community meetings over the last two years, the full extent of the eminent domain plans — including the addresses of the condemned properties — was not released until late April.
According to the redevelopment project’s website, PHA has not held any public community meetings since that time.