Flawed Vacant Land Management
At over 40,000 parcels, Philadelphia’s vacant land problem is literally everywhere. 25% of the vacant parcels are publicly-owned by five different City agencies, each with different incentives and regulations regarding the dispersal of the land. Although a true City-wide consensus and policy regarding public vacant land has yet to appear, there are a few glimmers of hope.
- The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) has launched an online, interactive map showing available public vacant land parcels. From this map you can view the parcel’s address, zoning, land area, and price. You can even “express interest” in parcel online.
- The City’s new “Policies for the Sale and Reuse of City-owned Property” was published in April 2012. In addition to [finally] outlining some guiding principles for the sale and reuse of City properties, it also offers some opportunities for legal community intervention through affordable housing and urban agriculture.
The other 75% of vacant land in the City is privately-owned. The majority of the private lots are less than 1/10-th of an acre and many, many years tax-delinquent. It is time-consuming and costly for the City to acquire ownership of private, tax-delinquent properties through tax foreclosure, so they remain vacant, year after year. Additionally, the City’s Licenses & Inspections (L&I) Department does not have the protocol or man power to enforce the maintenance of vacant lots (that is… when they can even find the owner!).
So, what can be done? In many cases the community, frustrated with stagnant redevelopment activity and a non-responsive City government, take matters in to their own hands and adopt a vacant land site themselves. These community members put their own money and man power in to stabilizing the blighted vacant land, only to have it taken away from them when a better development opportunity arises (in the case of private vacant land) or to have the City government tell them they were trespassing (in the case of public vacant land).
- In the City’s Fishtown neighborhood, community members created the “Leopard Street Garden” at the corner of Thompson and Leopard streets and have been caring for the site for 15 years. This project was possible through an informal agreement with the private owner that said they could use the site until the owner was “ready to use it themselves.” According to a City Paper article this week, the owner is ready to sell to the site to another developer. The community has some oversight over whether the site gets redeveloped into 12 residential units through the Fishtown Neighbors Association, and they have voted against! But that didn’t keep the owner from leveling their garden and erasing their 15-year investment from the face of the neighborhood.
- In the City’s Point Breeze neighborhood, a local business owner and developer invested over $20,000 to clean out a trash strewn eye sore owned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. The developer states in a recent Philly.com article that his many calls to the PRA to either clean up the site themselves or allow him to lease or purchase the site, were rebuffed, and he was told to leave the site alone. Now after investing in trash disposal, some landscaping and fencing, the well-meaning developer has been told that he was trespassing and must return the site to its original condition! Really, the City wants him to get the several tons of trash he had hauled away, re-dumped on the site?? What I don’t understand, is why the City didn’t allow the developer to just lease or purchase the site out right. They would have gotten revenue from selling the trash strewn lot, would no longer be liable for the horrendous condition of the site (not that they were doing anything about it) and the neighborhood could rally around a new development (hopefully with lots of public green space). The City’s response to this situation seems to be in direct contradiction to their policies for the sale and reuse of the City land, which includes “eliminate blight and revitalize neighborhoods.”
But, let me know what you think!
I’ve liked the post, and I’ll answer in what I’m affraid will be a long text, as you touch some issues that are interesting in most places; after all, property is behind most of what we do… Just a question, which kind of cadastre you have in Philadelphia? Is it a system managed by the state, the city or any other system?
Thanks for joining the conversation. I’m sorry for the delay in my response to your question as I was unsure how to respond. One of the largest problems preventing Philadelphia from properly “managing” its inventory of vacant land is a lack of a consistent system to track (or at least, enforce) land ownership and the responsibilities that go with that. We have detailed tax records and parcel maps but lack the standard procedure or man power to enforce the payment of property taxes and maintenance of abandoned structures and land. The breakdown of this system is a major downfall common to many post-industrial American cities.
One common scenario plaguing many of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods is the cycle of property tax debt which leads to property abandonment when the debt exceeds the value of the property. These abandoned properties fall into severe disrepair although the City does not have the capacity to maintain the property itself or pursue the costly tax foreclosure process to acquire the property legally. In many cases, the property has been abandoned for so long that the last known owner is no longer living, leaving the property in perpetual limbo.
At least, that is the way I understand it (just part of the problem) at this point.
We face similar problems of absent owners, albeit the issue is more complex in rural areas than in cities for the most part. In planning terms, in a country that has built so much in the last decade as to pay ourselves a housing bubble not unlike yours in California or Florida, we either had regional laws not adressing that problem, so new growth areas were delayed by the lack of consent of some owners, or other regional laws as the one in Valencia that tried to force a reduction in delays so much that a German owner coming just one month a year could find his holiday home razed for a new development as a surprise (the law there forced the concept of eminent domain to an absolutely abusive degree), as he was just notified to the now razed property (this is not a joke, as it has hapened several times and was the reason for legal changes relevant in such a tourism-driven economy).
By what you say it seems we have a more efficient system for cadastral purposes (probably the fact it is a state-operated system helps as compared to city-operated ones). I have not seen usually complains about land taxes not being paid, but it is also probably because municipalities have different income resources here.
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