Philly community groups could get priority in sale of thousands of vacant city lots under new bill

Adamarie Baez and Daniel Ortiz with their 10-year-old daughter Kaylee in the lot next to their home they’ve maintained and gardened in for years. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Adamarie Baez and Daniel Ortiz with their 10-year-old daughter Kaylee in the lot next to their home they’ve maintained and gardened in for years. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

For decades, community gardeners have tended to abandoned land in neighborhoods redlined by the insurance industry, neglected by government and ignored by developers. Yet as values rise across the city and builders see opportunity in long-overlooked lots, gardeners find themselves fighting to hold onto the spaces they’ve cultivated.

A bill before City Council aims to change that.

The measure, which Councilmember Jamie Gauthier introduced last month, would direct the Philadelphia Land Bank and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority to prioritize applications from certain nonprofit groups to develop surplus public land into uses that benefit communities — like affordable housing or community gardens. The bill would give these organizations more time to gather funding for projects. The bill only applies to non-competitive, unsolicited land disposition process, and prioritization would kick in when there are multiple applicants for a parcel.

“This gives us a mechanism to acquire space for affordable housing or green space and to ensure that it stays affordable in perpetuity,” said Suku John, director of East Park Revitalization Alliance, a nonprofit that develops community gardens and open space in Strawberry Mansion. The group belongs to the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities, which partnered with Gauthier to create the legislation.

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The city lost 13,000 lower-cost housing units between 2008 and 2016, according to a housing plan released by the city in 2018. A PlanPhilly investigation found that expiring restrictions on affordable housing that relies on tax credits or subsidies threatens thousands of other low-cost units. In Philadelphia, the affordability restrictions on 1,700 units could expire over the next five years.

Nora Lichtash, who directs the Women’s Community Revitalization Project and has worked in housing and community development for decades, sees Gauthier’s proposal as a big step toward permanent affordability in the city.

“It feels almost revolutionary,” she said.

The bill targets nonprofits known as community land trusts, which are tax-exempt organizations that acquire land to hold in perpetuity and lease out. To qualify for priority and the special application process outlined in the bill, a land trust would need bylaws that ensure permanent affordability of any structural improvements to its land, as well as a board of directors at least 75% made up of the organization’s constituents, which could be defined demographically or by a particular geographic area.

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Community land trusts have seen mixed success in Philadelphia, with several started in the 1980s that ultimately failed, including the Kensington Joint Action Council and Manos Unidas, which left homeowners with a mess of tax liens. Newer organizations, like the Community Justice Land Trust, are still working to provide affordable housing in the face of gentrification in neighborhoods like Point Breeze and Port Richmond, where the organization operates 36 rent-to-own townhomes. There are around a dozen community land trusts successfully operating in the city, many of which have sprung up in the last five years, said Lichtash, whose organization helped start the Community Justice Land Trust and is a member of the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities.

The words “Not for sale” are painted on a Keninsgton street
At the César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden in Kensington, the words “Not for sale” were painted on the street as a message to developers and the city in June 2020. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

‘The pipeline is clogged’

The Philadelphia Land Bank has faced criticism for years that it moves too slowly to transfer surplus public land to eligible applicants. John, of East Park Revitalization Alliance, said the problem is insufficient funding and staffing.

“The pipeline is clogged,” he said.

According to a report the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities released last year, the city owns more than 5,000 parcels of surplus vacant land, but has disposed of fewer than 700 in the past five years. Data city officials provided to PlanPhilly show the majority of lots the Land Bank disposed of were for housing, with more than half of planned units considered affordable. Just a fraction of the lots approved for disposition were for gardens or open space, and most of these are still awaiting settlement, due to a pending legal decision regarding realty transfer tax.

“It has traditionally been super hard to get ownership of green space,” John said. “Honestly, if you don’t have a good relationship with your councilperson, it’s close to impossible to get access to the land.”

Many gardeners end up working vacant land without formal ownership, but as neighborhoods change, this can become a problem.

“Philly sort of has this reputation for being on the forefront of the urban ag scene,” John said. “It’s viewed as sort of this young, hipster-driven movement. But the reality is, in neighborhoods like Strawberry Mansion, there are people, older people … who are now in their 80s and 90s, who’ve been growing food on vacant lots for 30, 40, 50 years.”

John’s organization has taken over care of lots when some of these longtime stewards can no longer do so. One of these lots is city-owned, and John expects it could get “yanked” by a developer.

“Strawberry Mansion is, it appears to be, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood,” he said, of the majority-Black neighborhood where more than 40% of residents live below the poverty line. “So it’s possible somebody might buy that lot from the city and build a house or a couple houses. I think that’s more than likely.”

East Park Revitalization Alliance has found more success partnering with a land trust.

The organization runs a community garden and outdoor learning space across from Strawberry Mansion High School, where staff help culinary students explore growing food. Neighborhood Gardens Trust (NGT) leases the land from the city, John said, and the land trust helped his organization cut through a knotted bureaucratic process to access the land, which was originally multiple parcels owned by different city agencies, one with a complicated deed history.

“If it wasn’t for NGT, we would have never been able to get a garden lease, just because of the bureaucratic nightmare,” John said.

A new path for community-oriented development

Gauthier’s bill would not change the city’s process for selling its surplus land for all types of development. It would simply create an additional pathway for applications from qualifying community land trusts, giving priority to projects that provide for the permanent affordability and community control of any proposed development.

“Our city has been facing a housing crisis for a while before the pandemic even happened, and so now we’re struggling to come out of this pandemic and finding ourselves in an even more dangerous position as it relates to people’s ability to find affordable housing,” Gauthier said. “We should be using publicly owned vacant land in neighborhoods of choice to help us achieve our affordable housing goal, to help us protect community spaces and to encourage community ownership.”

Projects like affordable housing or community gardens can already access a special process for acquiring city-owned land known as “noncompetitive” land disposition, where disposition of a surplus property is initiated by the applicant, rather than an RFP from the city. Applicants planning affordable housing or community gardens can also acquire city-owned land at nominal or discounted prices.

But one barrier in the current system, said Andrew Goodman, director of equitable development in Gauthier’s office, is that the city evaluates applications for surplus land in part on an applicant’s ability to pay for the proposed project.

“When you’re thinking about something like an affordable housing use, depending on the scale of that, that can require, you know, millions of dollars worth of fundraising ahead of time, which can be a large burden, especially for nonprofit organizations,” Goodman said.

When it comes to evaluating land trust applications, the bill would emphasize a land trust’s organizational capacity and ability to implement similar projects, rather than its financing for the one at hand, Goodman said. The bill would also offer land trusts the option to lease a property for five years before it is officially transferred. The city currently offers this option on a case-by-case basis, but Goodman said the bill would offer a more “open and direct” pathway.

“Instead of having to have everything ready for that specific address on day one, the alternative approach is that the city could offer you a five-year lease to essentially give you up to five years of ramp-up period to get your project to full feasibility,” Goodman said.

The bill also aims to encourage development of housing that is more affordable than what’s incentivized by the current system. Right now, for-profit developers can access the city’s noncompetitive land disposition process — and discounted sale prices — by promising that 51% of units built on the land will be affordable, workforce or mixed-income housing. This income-restricted portion can include units for households earning up to 120% the area median income — or $113,400 for a family of four.

But to get priority under Gauthier’s bill, organizations would need to commit to a “deeper level of affordability,” Goodman said — with more than half of housing units occupied by households who earn no more than 50% of Area Median Income for rental units and no more than 80% of area median income for homeownership units. Proposals would also need mechanisms for permanent affordability and community control.

Goodman says the bill aims to “level the playing field” between for-profit developers and community land trusts, in part by giving communities a heads-up when a parcel is under consideration for disposition and giving a nonprofit land trust time to submit an alternate proposal.

The city currently approves applications for surplus land through the noncompetitive process on a first-come-first-served basis, as long as they meet the requirements, said Jessie Lawrence, director of real estate at the Philadelphia Housing and Development Corporation. Under the bill, the city would need to post information online about a proposed noncompetitive disposition shortly after officials receive an application, indicating that other parties could submit proposals.

Under the bill, City Council would still need to approve dispositions to land trusts.

A ‘nudge toward doing the right thing’

Gauthier’s bill is not the first attempt to reform the city’s disposition process. Revelations in recent years of political dealing, land flipping, and a huge backlog of interested buyers led to an overhaul of the system in 2019. Early last year, Land Bank Executive Director Angel Rodriguez said the process had become more transparent and predictable, and that city agencies now have more recourse against people looking to game sales. But others still see problems.

“My gut feeling is that if the Land Bank had worked the way it was intended to work, like, there would not have been need for [Gauthier’s] legislation,” said John, with East Park Revitalization Alliance. “This is one more thing to kind of nudge this city towards doing the right thing.”

Jamila Davis, a spokesperson for the city Department of Planning and Development and the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation (PHDC), defended the Land Bank’s progress, saying in an emailed statement that the agency, along with the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and PHDC, has “made strides in putting vacant City owned land back into productive use.” She declined to comment on the pending legislation.

Davis said the agencies are on track to meet the goals of the city’s 2018 Housing Action Plan, which directs agencies to leverage publicly held land to build affordable housing, prioritizing the acquisition of tax-delinquent parcels in high-value neighborhoods. The plan also calls for the creation of 9,000 units of new affordable and workforce housing in the city within 10 years through a combination of public interventions and market activity. In the past five years, Land Bank dispositions, including those awaiting settlement, have resulted in the creation of around 500 units of affordable housing.

Flower beds at the César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden in Kensington. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Concerns that the bill does not go far enough

Not everyone sees Gauthier’s proposal as a clear win.

The César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden in Kensington has had its own struggles with land security. Parts of the garden were slated for development as housing, a controversial multi-parcel proposal which hit a number of roadblocks. Garden members say the city is in the process of transferring some parcels in the garden to their group — a process they describe as long and paperwork-intensive — while other parcels they use are still owned by developers.

Adamarie Baez, who lives down the street from the garden, described it as a peaceful, calming place where you can “be free.” She first started coming to it when her 11-year-old daughter, who has autism, wanted to walk in the garden.

“So we brought her here and we noticed that she was able to socialize with people, not like the playgrounds, because, you know, it’s different for kids that have autism. So after that, I just like started bringing my nieces, my neighbors’ kids. I just think I brung almost the whole community here.”

Amy Gottsegen helps with community organizing at the garden. She painted Gauthier’s current proposal as a step in the right direction, but not a panacea for grassroots groups like César Iglesias, which is not a certified nonprofit, she said.

“There needs to be pathways for groups that don’t have the resources to get a lawyer and do all of their incorporation stuff,” she said. “We’re not a community land trust, and so as of now, I don’t think that the legislation would help us.”

Others in the group say the affordability standards in Gauthier’s bill stil don’t go far enough.

“They have to come with better numbers than that, in order for anybody around this neighborhood to live comfortably,” said Anthony Patrick, a longtime Kensington resident and César Iglesias’ treasurer.

Goodman, in Gauthier’s office, said the affordability levels in the bill were chosen by weighing the city’s housing crisis with existing financing mechanisms for affordable housing — like the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and mortgages for first-time homebuyers.

“The goal is to get the deepest affordability possible for the highest number of units in a way that actually makes projects fundable and achievable,” he said.

But Gauthier is open to changing the bill, Goodman said, and expects to hold stakeholder conversations as the legislation moves forward.

Gauthier said she doesn’t know when the bill will be heard in committee. Council comes back from winter break Jan. 20.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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