Land Bank bill caught in twilight zone

UPDATED, 12/5/13 8:15am: The Inquirer reports that Council President Clarke and Councilwoman Quiñones-Sánchez have negotiated a deal to advance the land bank legislation. Clarke’s amendment to include the Vacant Property Review Committee as a layer of approval for land bank transactions has been included. Council will also approve acquisitions as part of an annual strategic plan. 

Time is running out to pass legislation establishing the Philadelphia Land Bank this year, with only two City Council sessions left in December. As of today the bill remains a moving target, as 11th hour legislative arm-wrestling continues over just how streamlined the Land Bank’s processes will be and how much control City Council will have over Land Bank property transactions. That means City Council’s meeting this Thursday (Dec. 5) could be the land bank’s moment of truth. 

If the bill does not pass this month, it could be difficult to get a land bank up and running by fall 2014 or even before the Mayoral election in 2015. Come spring, the land bank could again be eclipsed by Council’s focus on the budget and school-funding crises. So if not now, there may not be another shot at passing the land bank any time soon.

What’s at Stake?

Philadelphia is its own worst landlord, holding some 10,000 vacant properties – roughly ¼ of all of the vacant parcels in the city – draining property values, blighting neighborhoods, and bringing in no tax revenue. The current systems in place for anyone to acquire one of these publicly-held properties are a gnarled mess of red tape that can take years to untangle. Privately held blight is even harder to fight.

A land bank could be Philly’s best hope for a fair, straightforward, clear process for getting the city’s derelict properties back into productive uses, helping to vanquish vacancy, bust blight, and take on tax-delinquent property owners.

The land bank bill that passed City Council’s Committee on Public Property and Public Works last month was a compromise, but one that land bank advocates thought was well worth final passage. It has strong accountability and transparency measures and dramatically streamlines the city’s processes for land disposition and acquisition into a single sensible system.


What’s in play?

Council President Clarke still has concerns about the land bank bill he co-sponsored with Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez. As Axis Philly reported Sunday, Clarke circulated his outstanding questions and proposed amendments to fellow Councilmembers late last Wednesday while most folks were busy thinking about Thanksgiving. Today City Paper reports that Clarke is organizing community groups to advocate for tabling the land bank bill indefinately.

In essence Clarke objects to the Land Bank’s vast new powers, and he sees City Council as the appropriate check on those powers. Clarke seemed to support the bill, even if tepidly. Earlier this week Clarke’s spokeswoman Jane Roh characterized Clarke’s push for extra layers of review as critical oversight of the Land Bank.

Among the changes Clarke proposes: Prior written approval by District Councilmembers for the acquisition of properties by the Land Bank in their districts, and review of Land Bank decisions by the Vacant Property Review Committee (VPRC)– a body chaired by the Council President (or his designee) and made up of Council and Administration members/designees.

“While the Land Bank will hold public hearings, its board members are unelected and are effectively not accountable to the public. As both the Administration and Council are represented on the VPRC, it is the Council President’s belief that the public deserves to be heard by those who can be held accountable for governmental decision-making,” Roh said over email.

The Administration and Council would, however, be well represented on the Land Bank Board too, each having an equal number of appointees. The people serving on the board would serve at the pleasure of the Mayor or Council only, which in theory provides would provide a real measure of accountability.

Councilwoman Quiñones-Sánchez has proposed the alternatives of making VPRC approval optional, or creating a different committee structure that would include representation from agencies pertaining to property (L&I, Planning, Revenue, Commerce, etc.).

When it comes to preapproval from District Councilmembers for acquisitions, Roh said the hope would be to sign off on particular uses for properties, reflecting land bank’s strategic plan, well in advance of any particular transactions.

“Wholesale Council signoff based on comprehensive and strategic neighborhood and community planning is arguably the goal here, ” she said.


What gives?

On a basic level Clarke’s amendments would establish more layers of approval and redundancy that could significantly slow down the Land Bank’s property disposition and acquisition processes. That flies in the face of one of the primary goals of the land bank: Simplifying and streamlining the city’s notoriously tangled and slow systems for handling surplus property transactions in the name of getting more properties back into the hands of responsible owners ready to use them productively.

Those extra steps also create more places where progress could stall out. Even with Clarke’s amendments there would still be fewer steps for a property disposition than under the current broken system, but that’s not exactly high praise.

Under Clarke’s plan here’s the minimum you’d have to do to acquire a property through the land bank: Obtain a letter from the District Councilperson (if the parcel needs to be acquired and Council’s preapproval isn’t already in place), get approved by the Land Bank and then the Vacant Property Review Committee, finally be voted on at City Council. And that means Council will have a say, one way or another, every step of the way. 

Clarke’s changes would further entrench the tradition of “councilmanic prerogative,” the old school gentlemen’s agreement whereby District Councilmembers make decisions about property in their districts uncontested by any other Councilperson. It’s not a written rule, but it’s set in stone.

Why should the Land Bank be encumbered by the same old politics that already surround vacant property?

So is Council setting up a Land Bank system that will be crushed under the weight of its own bureaucracy? In part that will be up to how successfully the Land Bank is put into operation, including the development of its regulations and strategic plan, how it is staffed and funded, and who serves on the interim board.

For starters the interim board members will have to be named at Council’s session on December 5 if the bill is to pass the following Thursday.

Advocates hope that once the bill passes there will be ample opportunity to hammer out the fine-grained details of the Land Bank’s governing policies and operations. And some fear that policymakers are losing sight of the prize: reducing blight, renewing neighborhoods, and rebuilding the city’s tax rolls.

Passing the land bank bill now is critical because the Nutter Administration is already working on its budget for the next fiscal year. Without a bill passed now, it is increasingly unlikely that there will be a budget allocation to start the land bank next year. No budget means there will be no strategic planning help from the Planning Commission, no staffing from other agencies (borrowed or otherwise), no maintenance for vacant properties transferred into the land bank, no legal groundwork by the Law Department. No action.

“If it doesn’t happen now I’m not sure when its going to happen to be honest,” said Rick Sauer, director of the Philadelphia Association for Community Development Corporations and spokesman for the Philly Land Bank Alliance.

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