The Philadelphia Land Bank released its first strategic plan earlier this month. It also held its first hearing this week on methods to implement the program.
Members of the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities came away unimpressed.
“We want a land bank that is fair, accountable and transparent,” said Nora Lichtash, principal organizer of the coalition and executive director of the Women’s Community Revitalization Project, which testified during Thursday’s hearing. “For us, what symbolizes that accountability is having four community representatives on the board of directors. The other piece of accountability is [land bank officials] need to tell us about every piece of property given out and its end use.”
The plan is built upon vacancy and tax delinquency data from a number of public and private sources, and incorporates planning district and neighborhood land use plans that were developed with significant community input. It identifies focus zones to capitalize on the concentrations of vacant and tax delinquent properties in support of the plan’s goals.
The plan has several core goals: returning individual lots and buildings to productive use; promoting equitable community development; extending private investment; reinforcing open space initiatives and urban agriculture; supporting clear and transparent land bank operations and actively marketing land bank properties.
The land bank would have the authority to acquire vacant, tax-delinquent properties through sheriff’s sale and begin the process of consolidating title of and making available for sale the 9,082 vacant properties currently owned by the city. Philadelphia’s land bank would be the largest municipal land bank in the nation.
“The goal of the land bank is to turn vacant properties all over the city into neighborhood assets,” said Michael Koonce, chairman of the land bank. “The recommendations in this plan will create a predictable and transparent process to enable residents and businesses to make that goal a reality.”
City Council passed an ordinance two years ago renaming the Councilmanic District development Program to the Philadelphia Land Bank, and amended the Philadelphia Code accordingly. That legislation reinforced the notion a municipal land bank would ensure clear, transparent and efficient operations by serving as a single entity to acquire, hold and dispose of vacant property with the participation and approval of City Council.
“The consolidation of ownership of all publicly-owned surplus property in a municipal land bank is expected to reduce the administrative cost related to said property, and allow a greater proportion of public funds to be invested directly into community revitalization,” the bill said. “Extensive grassroots community planning over the last decade by local community development corporations and advocacy groups, with the support of the private sector, has found that creation of a municipal land bank is necessary for the strategic redevelopment of Philadelphia.”
Lichtash said she and others in the coalition testified on Thursday to speak specifically about fairness in the parceling out of the available land.
“We want to see how much [land for] affordable housing is available in what district,” Lichtash said. “We like the idea that land will be disposed of through the land bank and that land come back out for affordable housing, but what about job creation, green space and fresh food markets. These are important to neighborhoods.”
Another problem Litchtash has is year one goals appear lofty, yet the land bank has yet to offer concrete steps toward reaching those expectations. However she believes the plan will eventually pan out.
“This plan will help with the idea of equitable development and other affordable uses of the available land,” Lichtash said. “Our expectations are that it will strategically plan around how [much land for] affordable housing units the land bank plans on giving out, especially in the areas that are gentrifying.
“Our constituents are low–to–moderate income folks, and a lot of them are struggling.”