The long-awaited next step for legislation to create a Land Bank in Philadelphia — a hearing before City Council's Committee on Public Property — finally took place today, and the bill was approved by the committee, with Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell dissenting. But the plan, which calls for an agency controlled jointly by City Council and the administration, was still a moving target. Amendments were circulating regarding, among other things, how to maintain properties; how the Land Bank's board of directors will be composed; how property transfers will be approved; and how closely the Land Bank will follow the city's comprehensive plan (they'll have to strongly consider it, but not adhere to it).
Some of those amendments were cause for controversy. According to Council sources, proposed (and already abandoned) changes would have required that City Council legislatively approve every single acquisition by the Land Bank. Another change, calling for multiple layers of Council approval, including the whole of City Council and the Vacant Property Review Committee to approve dispositions, is apparently still in play. The worry is that those types of amendments would add layers of complexity to a plan whose initial purpose was, at least in part, to simplify land acquisition and disposition and improve transparency.
The issue of who will control the Land Bank and its board has held up the process for months. (The current iteration of the bill calls for the board to be composed of five appointees from City Council, five more from the Administration, and an 11th to be elected by the board.) But requiring Council and its committees to approve all of the Land Bank's transactions would — in addition to slowing the Land Bank's operations — have shifted the power balance further in Council's direction.
At the hearing today, advocates told now-familiar tales of being strangled by red tape while their neighborhoods crumble around them. Constance Morrow, a resident of the 2300 block of Germantown Avenue, says the blight that surrounds her home feels insurmountable. Vacant lots, she says, attract trash — piles of it on a daily basis. "There's not ever a moment that I can escape the filth, the trash, on both sides of the block. … I can't have a barbecue in my backyard because of the rats the trash. I call 311 so many times that now they know me by my voice. The thing I hate the most about this it is I feel like my grandchildren are living the same way I did."
Majeedah Rasheed of the Nicetown Community Development Corporation, which developed vacant lots into the affordable-housing developments Nicetown Courts 1 and 2, says she "realized the city's system for transferring ownerships was broken when we often had to navigate four different sale processes from different city agencies and then get council approval." The CDC has a plan for another project: to redevelop the land by a Roosevelt Boulevard underpass in Nicetown. But despite clean-up efforts and lots of interest from the city and private partners, Rasheed says, "the city has never been able to tell us who owns this parcel of land" — let alone transfer it to the CDC.
Others testifying raised questions about the details of the legislation, including whether it provides adequately for funding property maintenance. John Kromer of Penn's Fels Institute of Government suggested that the Land Bank buy properties before they go to sheriff's sale, then add a 15 percent surcharge when re-selling them. Amy Miller of East Kensington Neighborhood Association worried that public notice of sales would not be sufficient.
Ellen Kaplan of the good-government group Committee of Seventy said that, most important, Council could not allow "councilmanic prerogative to render [the Land Bank] impotent."
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