How the speed of sheriff sales affects vacancy and blight

Patrick Kerkstra has another juicy story in PlanPhilly’s ongoing series about the city’s vacant and tax-delinquent property crisis, in partnership with the Inquirer.

Turns out Philly’s sheriff’s sales are woefully slow, despite promises from the Nutter administration to speed up and clean up the process and collect on money the city is owed.

In the city’s defense, Revenue Commissioner Keith Richardson told Patrick that renewed collections efforts are working but,  “Jerusalem wasn’t built overnight. We have a lot to clean up here.”

Beyond the problem of collecting lost revenue, Patrick explains the connection between tax-delinquent properties and blight. The longer deadbeat owners can remain scofflaws, the more likely they are to neglect their properties. Patrick considers the example of the Buck building, which the city had started sheriff’s sale proceedings on, and uses similar properties to illustrate the problem – and a possible solution: There were 1,577 tax delinquent industrial properties in Philadelphia in 2011, with a total balance of $19.3 million owed in unpaid taxes, penalties and interest, according to city delinquency records obtained by PlanPhilly and The Inquirer. More than 500 of those are five or more years delinquent, and more than 250 are more than a decade past due.

“From a public safety perspective, the more properties we have on the delinquency list the more likely it is that we’ll have owners who are not paying attentions to their properties, and that can lead to tragedies like the fire,” said Councilman Bill Green, who in February introduced an ordinance that would overhaul the city’s property tax delinquency system.

Green’s bill seeks to move large numbers of long-term, low-income tax delinquents into payment plans, while using the threat of imminent sheriff sales to compel property owners with the means to pay up immediately. His bill would require the city to begin foreclosure proceedings against delinquent properties within a year, theoretically putting an end to long-term tax delinquency.

“There needs to be a date certain by which there will be consequences for not paying your taxes,” Green said. Green’s right about time limits. The city needs to use every measure of its powers to curtail the capacity of long-term property squatting by deadbeat owners. If owners don’t pay up and maintain their properties, the city should move swiftly. The complement to this new approach toward deadbeats could be a robust, well-run, city land bank. If the city is scooping up delinquent and neglected properties, it can also control who gets those properties using the land bank process. Yet another reason to get the land bank right.


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