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Philly's New Land Bank: Will it Give Blighted Communities a Boost?

Vacant land policy doesn't generate buzz, but is an important factor in the city's efforts to recover economically from the post-industrial blues.

Photo Credit: Carollo


This article originally appeared on YES! Magazine's website, and is reprinted here with their permission.

On Oct. 28, the list of people testifying before the Philadelphia City Council’s Committee on Public Property and Public Works seemed endless: Hour after hour, witnesses from every corner of the city were agreeing that living next to a vacant lot is an awful experience.

“It’s become this area where people dump their trash; it attracts stray animals; people go in to hook up and do drugs; it’s just nasty and dangerous,” Rachel Sensenig told me, reiterating her testimony about the “huge” vacant lot next to her home in Northwest Philadelphia. “We do good stuff in our back yard, but there’s just a fence separating it. ... No one wants to barbecue next to a pile of trash.”

Sensenig is an administrative pastor with Circle of Hope, a youth-oriented Christian church that is one of 46 members of the grassroots  Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land. She was referring to the testimony of another attendee, who no longer holds gatherings outside of her North Philadelphia home due to the huge accumulation of dumped garbage in the vacant lot next to her house. She woke up one morning to find trash piled taller than the top of her head.

Not all of Philadelphia’s  40,000 parcels of vacant properties are creepy lots, though: There are also storefronts and boarded-up row houses in bustling commercial corridors and middle-income neighborhoods, properties that are owned by a variety of unsavory types who sit on them waiting for the value to rise higher.

Blighted properties drain public coffers, contribute nothing to the tax base and serve as havens for crime and trash. After years of work, Sensenig and other activists hope that a bill passed this December will finally provide Philadelphians with a tool to confront this colossal problem:  a land bank.

The land bank law, which was championed by Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, will create a public agency that could potentially bring many of those vacant parcels under one roof while simplifying the acquisition process for those interested in obtaining property. Philadelphia will be the largest city yet to adopt a land bank.

Blight Brings Communities Down

Vacant land policy doesn’t generate the eye-catching headlines of a homicide or the readily apparent tragedy of the ongoing underfunding and privatization of schools. But it is an important factor in the city’s efforts to recover economically from the post-industrial blues. Blighted land and crumbling buildings are millstones around the necks of the population (which has recently been growing for the first time in decades).

Many Philadelphians believe the land is being squandered because  the city’s land management system is broken. The current structures in place are inadequate to deal with the  30,000 parcels held by private owners, a majority of them tax delinquent, and the 10,000 parcels controlled by a snarled thicket of four public agencies, each with their own distinct and intricate acquisition process that can last years without conclusion. (According to the  Philadelphia Land Bank Alliance, these four entities annually sell a mere one percent of their properties back into productive use.)

Meanwhile, a report from the consulting firm Econsult  estimates that those 40,000 parcels cost the city more than $20 million a year in maintenance costs. The 17,000 parcels that are tax delinquent accrued $70 million in back taxes by 2011, with an additional $2 million added each year. Then there’s the immense drag these eyesores have on surrounding property values, which Econsult says ranges from reductions of 6.5 to 20 percent, depending on the extent of a neighborhood’s blight.