A few of the 100 Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land supporters who turned out at Philadelphia’s City Hall for a successful hearing on the land bank bill.
Photo courtesy: Tara Innamorato
An estimated 40,000 properties sit vacant in the city of Philadelphia, and nearly 10,000 of these properties are publicly owned. The financial impact of these vacancies is enormous, diminishing property values by some 6.5 percent across the city. Upkeep and judicial procedures related to these properties, such as maintenance, foreclosures, inspections, and public safety, cost the city more than $20 million annually.1 The transfer of these properties to productive uses, however, has been slow. On average, it takes three years or longer to repurpose each property for productive use.2
For years, community organizations, local nonprofits, and businesses have campaigned for a citywide land bank as a tool to regain control of vacant properties. Together they formed the Philly Land Bank Alliance, with members including the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors, the Building Industry Association, and the Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land (a coalition of faith-based and activist groups), among others. “Everyone agreed that the current process [for property disposition] was broken and that the land bank was a key solution to addressing that problem,” says Rick Sauer, executive director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, a member organization of the Philly Land Bank Alliance.3 Their efforts culminated in the unanimous approval of the Philadelphia Land Bank bill by the city council in December 2013. The bill aims to make it faster, easier, and more economical to repurpose vacant land, thereby transforming it from a liability to public asset.4
The Philadelphia Land Bank will pull together vacant properties owned by multiple city agencies, each with its own process for managing and disposing of property, and consolidate control. With fewer public agencies involved and a more streamlined process, the land bank is expected to return vacant sites to productive use within 12 to 18 months.5 In addition to taking title to publicly owned properties, the land bank may receive donations from other public agencies, acquire tax-delinquent properties, and purchase properties. The land bank is also authorized to erase municipal liens and real estate taxes on properties it holds and set prices on properties it sells.6 Thus, the land bank can sell properties at a discount if they are intended, for instance, for affordable housing or other end-uses that benefit the public good.
Although the land bank is formally a subsidiary of city government, it will function as an independent entity with its own staff and board of directors, whose members include representatives of civic associations or nonprofits that work in community development or housing. The land bank is expected to be fully operational by the end of 2014.7
- Redevelopment Authority of the City of Philadelphia and Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations. 2010. “ Vacant Land Management in Philadelphia:
The Costs of the Current System and the Benefits of Reform,” ii, 5.
- Philly Land Bank Alliance. 2013. “Fixing a Broken Vacant Property Process.”
- Interview with Rick Sauer, December 2013.
- The land bank’s creation was made possible by the 2012 passage of state legislation that permits Pennsylvania cities, counties, boroughs, and the like to create a land bank.
- Interview with Rick Sauer.
- City of Philadelphia. 2013. “Philadelphia Land Bank legislation.”
- Ibid.; Interview with Rick Sauer.
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