Philadelphia Land Bank Bill

City Council unanimously passed a land bank bill on Thursday, December 12, 2013.

Background Information

In early 2013 Councilwoman María Quiñones Sánchez and Councilman Bill Green reintroduced the Philadelphia Land Bank Bill to the Philadelphia City Council. Since then, the Law Center has been involved in commenting and testifying on this bill as a member of the Philadelphia Land Bank Alliance, the Healthy Foods Green Spaces coalition and the Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land.

An appropriate land bank is designed to provide a transparent, streamlined and equitable process through which the city can manage the more than 40,000 vacant properties and support a range of development and community-driven productive uses. Currently there are numerous city agencies which own vacant public land in the city. Each agency maintains a distinct and difficult process for managing, selling and developing vacant land. An equitable bill would also include mandatory public involvement on the new land bank agency’s government board.

Since the introduction and first committee hearing, a series of edits and amendments have been added that have threatened to alter the bill and decrease transparency and efficiency. The Philly Land Bank Alliance statement on these amendments can be read below. For more information on the current land transfer process, the proposed land bank bill and our preferred, more streamlined land bank process, take a look at the Philly Land Bank Alliance’s infographic.

Land Bank Updates

City Council unanimously passed the land bank bill on Thursday, December 12, 2013.

Philadelphia Moves Forward on Creating a Land Bank

After weeks of negotiation and compromise, an amended version of the land bank bill was approved on December 5, 2013.

The interim board was named in the amended version of the bill and is as follows:
Don McGrogan
Bill Salas
Michael Koonce
Brian Abernathy
Rick Sauer
Paul Badger
Herb Wetzel
Jennifer Kates
Courtney Voss
Ken Scott
Majeedah Rasheed

State Representatives Taylor and Ross Urge City Council to Vote on a Streamlined Land Bank Bill

State Representatives John Taylor (177th District) and Chris Ross (158th District) sent a letter to City Council requesting that the Vacant Property Review Committee amendment be removed from the land bank bill. The letter notes, “a land bank should be as independent of the current, stagnant political process as possible. We must trust the members of the land bank and allow them to move as quickly as possible to solve Philadelphia’s critical problems of property vacancy, tax delinquency and blight.”

Read the full letter here. Both Rep. Taylor and Rep. Ross were heavily involved in crafting the state legislation that allows Philadelphia to implement a land bank.

Land Bank Alliance Releases New Document that Charts the City’s Broken Property Disposition System

With Philadelphia’s City Council poised to pass an ordinance in December 2013 to create a Land Bank, the Philly Land Bank Alliance released a new infographic that shows the complex, time-consuming process now in place for the transfer of publicly owned vacant property, and how that process will change when an ordinance establishing an effective Land Bank is passed. The Philly Land Bank Alliance represents a broad group of stakeholders from the non-profit and for-profit community in Philadelphia.

The infographic shows that under the City’s current broken property disposition system, it takes a prospective buyer of vacant property 1.5 to 3.5 years to navigate a complex maze of various City agencies.  Under the amended Land Bank Bill No. 130156, currently pending in City Council, that process could be reduced to 1 to 1.5 years.  The Alliance demonstrates in the infographic how the bill could be further strengthened to create the most efficient and effective Land Bank by reducing the number of public approvals involved in the transfer from 3 to 2.

The Allies called on City Council to pass the strongest possible Land Bank by its December 12th session date, which is the final Council session of 2013.

Click here to access a PDF of the infographic.

Land Bank Alliance Calls for Streamlined Process

The Philly Land Bank Alliance, of which we are members, disseminated a statement that calls on City Council to remove the last-minute amendment that requires approval of land disposition by the Vacant Property Review Committee.

Diverse Alliance Calls for Streamlined Vacant Property Disposition
Seeks Removal Amendment that Inserts Needless Bureaucracy into New Process

November 6, 2013
Contact Rick Sauer at 215-732-5829 x105

Philadelphia took a significant step in its quest to fix its broken vacant property disposition system and create a single predictable, transparent and streamlined process for vacant property disposition. The Philly Land Bank Alliance is pleased that on October 28th Bill No. 130156 was reported out of the Committee on Public Property and Public Works of the City Council of Philadelphia. However, the bill was amended at the last minute to require three elected and appointed public bodies to approve the transfer of every one of the almost 10,000 parcels of the city’s publicly owned vacant property. This adds unnecessary time and bureaucracy and will discourage investment in Philadelphia. We urge Council to remove the last-minute amendment that requires approval by the Vacant Property Review Committee, in addition to a resolution in City Council and final action by the Land Bank.

The Vacant Property Review Committee (VPRC) is a 14-member committee that was created by City Council in 1977 to review proposed transactions for acquiring or disposing of vacant properties and preparing legislation for City Council authorization for such conveyances. The Land Bank Board, similarly made up of members appointed by the Administration and Council including community representatives, will now play that role rendering VPRC involvement in the Land Bank disposition process duplicative and unnecessary. The Land Bank will provide public notice on proposed dispositions, give the public opportunities for comment through an open, transparent process, and give community organizations influence through representation on the Land Bank Board. If Council believes that the composition or procedures of the VPRC offer a benefit that the Land Bank does not, the Alliance urges Council to add this feature to the Land Bank Board, rather than slowing down the system by adding another hurdle for applicants to overcome in order to gain approval to buy a lot.

The Land Bank bill had proposed a reconstituted VPRC made up of District Council members as an alternativeto a City Council resolution. The Alliance had supported the reconstituted VPRC because it would give City Council members input in disposition decisions at an earlier stage in the process, before applicants incurred substantial time and costs. The Council Committee, however, subsequently approved an amendment that added the Council resolution in addition to the approval of the VPRC.

The amendments to Bill No. 130156 made in Committee would require a resident who seeks to buy the vacant blighted lot next door to be approved by Land Bank staff, the Vacant Property Review Committee, City Council and the Land Bank Board – a process that will involve the approval of more than 41 individuals and be lengthy, redundant and offer significant uncertainty. Requiring three separate public bodies to approve each property transfer will discourage, rather than encourage, rehabilitation of blighted properties.

This is a critical moment for Philadelphia to create an effective new Land Bank and a streamlined process to transfer vacant land. Our City is growing again for the first time in six decades. We need new policies to capitalize on this growth. This is the opportunity for City Council and the Administration to create a smart, effective Land Bank and Council approval process for the disposition of properties. The Alliance calls on City Council to pass a Land Bank bill that establishes a disposition system that requires decision making by two entities at most – first by City Council Resolution and, then, by the Land Bank Board – with all initial vetting, legal and administrative processes, and public outreach conducted by the Land Bank. Anything less is unjust to the Philadelphians who are saddled with vacant, blighted properties and the people who are doing the hard work of revitalizing our neighborhoods.

The Philly Land Bank Alliance represents a broad group of stakeholders from the non-profit and for-profit community in Philadelphia.

Building Industry Association
City Wide NAC Alliance
Community Design Collaborative
Design Advocacy Group
Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors
LISC Philadelphia
Next Great City/PennFuture
Pennsylvania Horticultural Society
Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations
Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia
Regional Housing Legal Services
Sustainable Business Network

Amy Laura Cahn Testifies before City Council Committee on Public Property and Public Works

On October 28, Amy Laura Cahn, director of the Law Center’s Garden Justice Legal Initiative, gave the following testimony at the committee hearing on the land bank bill.

City Council Committee on Public Property and Public Works Hearing
October 28, 2013
Testimony of the Amy Laura Cahn, Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia
Bill Number 130156

I want to start by thanking Chairman Henon and all members of the Committee for the opportunity to testify today and Councilwoman Quiñones-Sánchez and your staff for your leadership on the land bank bill.  My name is Amy Laura Cahn and I am testifying in my capacity as a staff attorney with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.

For over forty years, the Law Center has been dedicated to ensuring that vulnerable populations have the vital resources all of us need to live productive, fulfilling lives: including a home, a safe and healthy neighborhood, and access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food.

The Law Center believes in the power of urban agriculture – including community gardening and market and community-supported farming — to build community assets, foster youth leadership and intergenerational relationships, support economic independence and environmental health, and eradicate blight.  Thus, through our Garden Justice Legal Initiative, I provide pro bono legal and policy support to Philadelphia’s gardens and farms.

In this economy and with increasing awareness about healthy food, physical activity, and environmental stewardship, the demand for space to garden in the city is growing. But Philadelphians have already been gardening together on the same vacant parcels without interruption for decades, even generations.  We believe that number may now exceed 800 gardens on over 2000 parcels.  However, scores of gardens are in jeopardy because residents do not have legal protection.

This city has, for years, tacitly accepted gardening and farming as a core strategy in blight reduction, but has rarely offered a clear path to legal access, much less permanence, even when garden spaces have become undeniably sewn into the fabric of a community.

The land bank bill, as written, contemplates that neighborhood revitalization & development take many forms, including open space and urban agriculture.  This is a huge step forward.  What we have now is not working.

Many today will speak to the difficulty of obtaining publicly owned land from multiple city agencies.  Gardeners are familiar with this process, often waiting years, with no clear results.  But our biggest set of land transfer quagmires are the privately owned parcels – tax delinquent and abandoned.

My first client at the Law Center was a South Philadelphia community group that began cleaning, greening, and gardening vacant lots back in the 1930s.  These lots were the sites of demolished homes some of which last changed hands as long ago as 1911 – there were no owners in evidence.  The organization revitalized these spaces, teaching youth gardening and other skills, for over seventy years, when the parcels started coming for sheriff’s sale.  Eager to keep community spaces in the community, the organization obtained title through a lengthy quiet title process.  This group has been incorporated as a nonprofit since 1947.   Had there been a clear way to acquire the land and clear the debt when they began, this organization could have obtained real estate tax exemptions and continued to focus on their important work.  Instead, when they gained title, they were saddled with someone else’s tax burden and almost immediately faced sheriff’s sale.

This organization has had the support of its District Councilmembers, first Council President Verna, then Councilman Johnson, but still struggles to keep its land.

More recently, a church group on Ann Street, in Kensington, began gardening to combat drug activity on two parcels in North Philadelphia — two parcels owned by an LLC with no obvious intent to take responsibility — with twenty thousand dollars worth of liens between the two lots and no market for development.

There is no timely or affordable mechanism to put these parcels in the hands of these communities. There should be a better solution than the South Philadelphia or Ann Street gardeners competing with speculators to purchase land from sheriff’s sale — only to see that land abandoned and neglected, once again.  A viable land bank will create these mechanisms.

A viable land bank could fundamentally transform the situation of these hard-working communities, based on the powers enumerated in this bill:

  • to acquire tax delinquent land and clear title and liens,
  • to consolidate parcels now held by multiple agencies, and
  • to offer any parcel for nominal or discounted sale, if the land bank board recognizes the end use to benefit the community.

For newer gardens, where transfer of title may not be appropriate or the right first step, the land bank has the potential to expedite the process of obtaining licenses or leases.  The Law Center views these as critical opportunities to incubate community-based, nonprofit, and for-profit enterprises, providing neighbors with the chance to see change happen more quickly and, again, helping to rebuild trust.

We welcome a land bank that ushers in a culture of openness and engages the public in setting priorities, developing policy, and planning for the future of their neighborhoods.  The strategic planning component will be a huge next step.  The City needs to look at existing resources and determine with neighborhoods what they need when making vacant land decisions.  Concurrently, gardeners and farmers will want to understand plans for particular parcels and the surrounding area before putting down roots.  This will be facilitated not just by planning, but timely onsite notification, clear communication between land bank staff, neighbors, and community groups, and accessible data and tracking systems.

For a land back to make a difference, particularly for community members without an advocate or political savvy or for whom English make not be a first language, we need a predictable, transparent process that is the same for everyone.  The benefits of gardens and farms are only realized after significant input of time and financial resources.  When land status remains uncertain, investment from nonprofits, residents, and funders alike can wane – putting important work in jeopardy.  It is my hope that a viable land bank will provide the City and this Council the opportunity to restore the trust of its constituents who have struggled for years to gain legal access and long term land tenure, with no clear way forward.

Many thanks for the opportunity to speak today.

Timeline

October 18, 2012: State legislature pass Pennsylvania Land Bank Bills (HB 1682 and SB 1414) which allow for the creation of land banks within the Commonwealth.

March 7, 2013: Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez and Councilman Bill Green reintroduced the Philadelphia Land Bank Bill to the Philadelphia City Council

October 28, 2013: City Council’s Public Property and Public Works Committee holds first hearing on land bank legislation. Residents and advocates turn out from across the city to show support for the land bank. The bill was voted out of committee after hours of testimony. Last minute amendments made to the bill passed without transparent dissemination of information.

November 14, 2013: First reading held before City Council

November 21, December 5, December 12, 2013: Final three City Council Committee of the Whole hearings before the end of the year.

 

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