Plot twist: Land Bank seeks to repurpose vacant properties, but critics say progress is slow

On the 2200 block of Ingersoll Street in the Sharswood section of North Philadelphia, three abandoned row homes sit boarded up on a strip dominated by empty lots.

Only a dwindling handful of occupied buildings hang on, a familiar scene in Philadelphia. 

An estimated 42,000 abandoned properties ranging from houses to empty lots pockmark sections of the city that are struggling to emerge from decades of neglect and desertion only a mile or two from the gleaming skyscrapers of Center City.

Developers looking for opportunities might be tempted by bargain-basement prices for such buildings and the land they stand on but will likely be deterred by liens resulting from years of tax delinquency, a maze of city agencies that hold title to some of the buildings and private owners that may or may not be traceable.

It’s a formidable challenge for any agency that seeks to restore blocks like 2200 Ingersoll to productive use, but it’s one that the Philadelphia Land Bank, a city agency, has been set up to tackle.

In 2013, City Council passed an ordinance to set up the agency, giving it authority to acquire tax-delinquent private properties at sheriff’s sale. This aimed to transfer city-owned structures and lots from different agencies to the Land Bank and offer one-stop shopping for developers who might help ease the urban blight.

Some three years after receiving its first public properties and two years after it started acquiring vacant, tax-delinquent parcels, the agency has published its latest strategic plan, a draft that is now subject to public comment and revision.

The plan shows the city has an estimated 42,100 vacant properties, 80 percent of which are privately owned. City-owned properties account for the rest and are owned by agencies including the Office of Public Property, which holds title to about half of the public properties, and the Land Bank, which holds around a third at just under 2,200.

Of the privately owned properties, 29,800, or 71 percent of the total, owe enough in back taxes or have owed for long enough to make the properties eligible for Land Bank acquisition, the plan shows.

With a 2019 fiscal budget of $6.93 million — less than half of which is available for acquisition — the Land Bank can now afford to buy up to 325 properties a year,  or just over 1 percent of those eligible for acquisition. 

It’s a drop in the bucket of what the strategic plan calls “a far-reaching and complex” problem, but the Land Bank’s executive director, Angel Rodriguez, said the agency’s resources are just one component of a city-wide effort to return its many abandoned properties to productive use.

“The enormity of the problem requires an array of solutions,” Rodriguez told PW ahead of a public meeting to discuss the Strategic Plan. “Clearly, the Land Bank should be viewed as a tool in the toolbox that has an array of tools and strategies working in unison.”

He said the Land Bank is adequately funded to meet its current goal of acquiring 325 properties a year but acknowledged that its biggest challenge remains whether it is able to scale up its efforts to significantly reduce the number of abandoned properties.

“We need to keep our eye on impact and scalability to where we are providing opportunities for equitable development and really getting strategic partners to the table so that the residents of Philadelphia get quality housing,” he said.

Through the end of 2018, the agency had acquired 463 private properties for $3.6 million while returning $2.8 million to the city in back taxes, 55 percent of which went to the school district, the report said.

While a strengthening real estate market has boosted construction, population and prices in previously distressed neighborhoods like Francisville, other sections continue to lose residents, who leave behind vacant properties that undermine the health of blocks and whole neighborhoods, according to the report. It called for more affordable housing in response to market pressures in some areas.

Rodriguez declined to respond to a call by the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations for more consolidation of public properties in the Land Bank, in line with its initial goals.

PACDC’s Policy Director, Beth McConnell, spoke out against plans to keep an inventory in the Department of Public Property and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority rather than transferring them to the Land Bank, saying that was at odds with the Land Bank’s vision.

“The point of the Land Bank was to create one owner, one system, one set of policies and procedures and one entity making strategic decisions about the surplus public property inventory,” McConnell told a public meeting at SEPTA’s offices on Wednesday. She urged the agencies to reconsider the plan.

The Land Bank’s failure to consolidate all of the surplus publicly owned properties under its own roof is due in part to a multi-year delay between its inception and operation, during which some City Council members lost confidence in the process and failed to seek council backing for plans to move properties in their district into the Land Bank — a requirement under the ordinance, McConnell said in an interview.

At the same time, some agencies avoided transferring title to the Land Bank because they had already found developers, and the transfer process simply got bogged down in paperwork that has to be done for individual properties, rather than en masse, McConnell said.

Some residents at the meeting said the Land Bank could be an opportunity to transform blighted neighborhoods but is moving far too slowly.

Theodore Zellers, a resident of Kensington, said he considered buying property from the Land Bank but was glad he didn’t try because the disposition process is so long, and many applicants never hear back or are denied. 

“The Land Bank needs to sell much more property, much more quickly,” he said.

Adam Butler of West Philly bought a property from the Land Bank in 2015 with the approval of Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell but said he has been unable to get a decision from the Land Bank on the purchase of two Kensington lots that he has helped to turn into a community garden. He said the Land Bank and the staff of Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez both tell him that they are waiting on the other to make a decision on the proposed sale. 

“It’s impossible to get a straight answer about how to make this happen,” Butler said. “We need both transparent communication about how the conveyance process will work, and honest support from the city to ensure these properties aren’t conveyed to developers who will destroy the existing gardens and build private housing.”


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