Kenyatta Johnson

Philadelphia City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson.

— Emma Lee/WHYY

City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and Council President Darrell Clark introduced a bill on Thursday they say creates new safeguards against corrupt land dealing in City Hall.

Introduced on the tail of a local news organization’s investigation into a sale of city-owned property that profited a childhood friend of Johnson, the bill expands and clarifies the responsibilities of the Vacant Property Review Committee.

It’s an obscure body chaired by an appointee of the City Council President, but one with outsize importance. The advisory body must recommend a public land sale before the transaction can be voted on by City Council and other land holding agencies. And it will not initiate the process without a letter of support from a district councilperson.

Johnson took center stage in the news organization’s investigation and subsequent calls for accountability because the lots that went to his friend, the developer Felton Heyman, were in his district and went to the developer for below-market value. Heyman told city officials he would build affordable housing on the vacant properties but instead sold them with a sizeable markup to a market-rate developer.

The Point Breeze sales moved forward after Johnson sent a letter of support to the property review committee.

Staffed by a mix of City Council and mayoral appointees, the 14-person committee has come under scrutiny by critics who argue that it lacks transparency and contributes to the city’s pay-to-play political culture.

“Although the review committee is staffed by administration officials it is controlled by council,” Pew Charitable Trusts wrote in a 2015 report. “Its operations follow no written bylaws or guidelines, officials say, and its work gets little public attention.”

The new legislation, introduced by Johnson on behalf of Clarke, would make a number of small changes to the review committee. The most meaningful tweak seems to be new language requiring that the body inspect properties 18 months after a developer recommended by the board has acquired the title of a property. The inspection is meant to ensure that projects advanced by the board are redeveloped in accordance with the approved proposal. — (WHYY)

Clarke’s bill also would require that all properties moved into the Redevelopment Authority or the Land Bank’s holdings receive a fair market value appraisal that has been reviewed by the VPRC. The board also would be required to draft written policies for its property disposition process. The Law Department is tasked with enforcing all these provisions.

Johnson blames the sales to Hayman on a breakdown of communication between agencies.

“There are several steps that take place before councilmembers introduce a piece of legislation, and that process is clearly flawed and broken,” said Johnson on Thursday following the hearing.

But while Johnson and Clarke argued on Thursday that the new regulations will increase the accountability of the VPRC, affordable housing advocates and other said that the bill does not do enough to address city’s flawed pay-to-play culture.

“City Council prerogative must be reined in,” said Thomas Earle, a founding member of the Philadelphia Coalition of Affordable Communities and CEO of Liberty Resources, Inc., a federally funded nonprofit that provides housing for the disabled. “Council members through their prerogative are circumventing the equitable development requirements of the Land Bank by keeping desirable vacant city properties out of the Land Bank and instead using the VPRC to distribute vacant city properties in a non-transparent manner as recently exposed in Point Breeze.” — (WHYY)

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