North Philadelphia: Land bank could help residents living next to blight

By Kate Hartman

For PlanPhilly 

This article was created in partnership with Temple University’s capstone journalism course Philadelphia Neighborhoods.

Doris Berris stood in front of the lot where her community garden used to be.

Doris Berris, of 1531 N. Ninth St., set up a community garden on a vacant lot across the street from her North Philadelphia home nearly three years ago. That garden produced nearly a ton of food, created bonds between neighbors and spurred an annual Thanksgiving celebration that became a tradition in the community.

Unfortunately, Berris and her neighbors can no longer share a meal they grew together because the city bulldozed their garden. That bulldozing also razed the faith of Berris and her neighbors  in the potential of vacant land.

“My house was shaking like an earthquake had hit it. I jumped up and made it to my door to see these people plowing down my garden,” Berris said.

“We had just been in the garden the week before and gathered in most of the harvest so God saw to it that most of the harvest didn’t get ruined but we lost a lot of squash, a lot of potatoes,” she said. “We lost a third of our corn crop. We were heartbroken.”

Berris said she had received permission to plant on that lot and was told that if the city ever wanted to use the land they would receive notice and be able to save their crops. Sadly for the neighbors, that promise was broken.

“I wouldn’t plant another garden over there for them to trample over again,” the 61-year-old said. “It’s too much effort for them to come and wreck it.”

Since the city bulldozed the garden, the property has been allowed to sit vacant and blighted once again.

Currently the lot is littered with trash.

Berris is not able to acquire legal rights to the land because the property has many different owners. If the process of acquiring vacant properties was simple, this community could plant a new garden and ensure its safety. However the process of buying and redeveloping vacant land is anything but simple in Philadelphia.

The vacant lot next to Doris Berris’ house has filled with weeds and trash every year since the houses that used to stand there were torn down.

There are approximately 40,000 vacant parcels of land within Philadelphia. Nearly a third of those properties are divided between several government agencies including the Redevelopment Authority, Philadelphia Housing Authority, Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. and the City’s Public Property Department.

The remaining three-quarters of vacant properties are privately owned. The process of acquiring these vacant parcels is complicated because all of these different agencies have their own methods for property sales. Further,  private properties usually have to go through Sheriff’s Sales to be developed.

“There are multiple different agencies that have their own inventory of properties with their own rules,” Executive Director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations Rick Sauer said.

“It’s an unfortunate situation and I don’t think that’s typical of most other cities and that’s why a land bank is really critical here in Philadelphia.”

In February, Philadelphia City Council members Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and Bill Green introduced legislation to create a city-wide land bank that would act as a single entity to control the publicly owned blighted and vacant land. The land bank would make it easier for the City to acquire tax delinquent properties.

On Oct. 17, a bill to approve the creation of municipal land banks finally passed in the Pennsylvania State House and Senate after sputtering through the legislative system for more than a year. This critical bill means that Philadelphia is now one step closer to making the land bank a reality.

“From our view the land bank would consolidate ownership of the public inventory all under one roof,” Sauer said. “So you have all 10,000 public properties in one place, and then you go out and strategically acquire additional privately owned property to assemble sites for whatever appropriate purpose.”

The land bank, which has seen support from State Rep. John Taylor, City Council members Sanchez, Green, Bobby Henon and Curtis Jones Jr., would consist of a seven-member board appointed by Philadelphia’s mayor and approved by City Council. Three board members would represent non-profit housing and development organizations or civic associations in the neighborhoods that are most affected by blight.

The land bank would make it easier for people like Doris Berris and her neighbors to buy and redevelop vacant land.

This lot on North Ninth Street has filled with trash since the city bulldozed the community garden that used to be here.

“Whether that’s a non-profit developer who wants to build affordable housing, whether that’s a for-profit developer doing commercial space, a business that wants to expand and can’t get the lot next door, or a homeowner who wants a side yard. All these different stake holders now have challenges navigating the current system,” Sauer said.

It is clear that the current system of acquiring properties is not working.

The process is too slow. While people who are trying to buy vacant land fight red tape, the vacant lots are filling with trash and costing the city $20 million a year to maintain. Many around the city feel something needs to be done and a land bank where properties are held and sold under one roof seems like a reasonable solution.

Yet the adoption of this tactic by any government agency comes with a question of implementation.

“I’m concerned about. If these four to 15 different agencies have not managed this stuff properly, how will it be managed properly? How can we ensure that the land bank will be different?” said Azaria Bailey-Curry, founder of Fight Philly Blight.

Bailey-Curry admitted that the current system is not working. But she is not fully convinced that a land bank will be the easy answer. She raises questions of funding and leadership, wondering if the funding allocated to the current agencies will be pooled to run the land bank or if new revenue will have to be generated.

Also, Bailey-Curry wondered if the people from the existing city agencies would run this new land bank. If they could not handle it before, how will we know that they can handle it now? Bailey-Curry said the land bank could be a good thing, but she encourages others to ask questions before getting behind this new legislation.

“I think we want to emphasize that implementation and the spirit behind the legislation is really what’s going to make it pop or not pop,” said Bailey-Curry. “There are some concerns, it does need a little tweaking and finagling, and I need to know where the money is coming from, but it’s a conversation I’m so glad that Philadelphia is having.”

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