Does Philadelphia finally have a solution for how it handles its vacant properties?
Last week, a bill passed through City Council’s Committee on Public and Public Works that would reform Philly’s land sale process.
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To say it’s been a long process for Philly to reform the way it deals with vacant land is an understatement. When Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez introduced the Philadelphia Land Bank in 2013, the idea of streamlining the way Philadelphia did its property business was a novel solution for the city.
With the Land Bank, the idea was to make a centralized, transparent way for the city to obtain and sell all its vacant land to community organizations or private developers.
It sounded good at the time and still does for many, but it’s had its hiccups.
Since 2015, the Land Bank has both acquired more than 8,000 of the city’s reported 40,000 vacant lots to sell, but also been a central player in some recent corruption scandals involving certain City Council members and their influence over the sale of property.
In light of some of those scandals, including one that resulted in an ongoing federal investigation, Council President Darrell Clarke introduced a sweeping reform bill in June that again looked to make the Land Bank the central player in Philly’s land deals while also improving its transparency.
The bill is also sponsored by Council members, Quiñones-Sánchez, Cherelle Parker, Jannie Blackwell and ironically, Kenyatta Johnson — who is at the center of the previously mentioned ongoing federal investigation.
Despite the clouds and still some things to work out, that bill passed through City Council’s Committee on Public Works and Public Property on Tuesday before being read in front of the full council on Thursday.
“The perfect can not be the enemy of the good,” said Councilwoman Quiñones-Sánchez when posed a question challenging the still unfinished nature of the bill.
Specifically, Clarke’s bill would eliminate the Vacant Property Review Committee (VPRC) — a piece of bureaucracy inserted into the Land Bank at its origin that has proven abusable — set a final decision timetable of 120 days for any land sale, and create a scoring system for those sales.
It does not, however, address councilmanic prerogative and its final say over property sales.
The scoring system is weighted by importance, with “economic opportunity and inclusion” coming first, “financial feasibility” second, and “social impact” third. Scoring can be avoided should the property be purchased for use as a side yard, community garden or a project with over 51% affordable housing.
Will Gonzalez, executive director of Ceiba, a nonprofit that empowers Latino communities through access to equitable housing, said he agreed with the legislation, but urged transparency and definitions for terms like “public purpose” and the previously mentioned “economic opportunity and inclusion”
“On paper, the Land Bank looks good, this legislation looks good,” said Gonzalez. “However, in practice, the Land Bank has yet to make a stride and this legislation, without additional definitions and safeguards of transparency and due process may not accomplish what it seeks to do.”
The bill could be on the Mayor’s desk very soon.