Philly is close to settling on a ‘better way’ to sell city land

A Philadelphia judge purchased this row home at 1514 N. Hollywood Street and the two adjacent vacant lots from the city. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A Philadelphia judge purchased this row home at 1514 N. Hollywood Street and the two adjacent vacant lots from the city. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia owns more than 8,000 fallow lots across the city and despite a hot real estate market and an urgent need for affordable housing, progress on moving them is slow. 

City officials and other observers have blamed a host of factors ranging from the economy to problems in the bureaucratic and political realm. But last June, after a series of investigations highlighted officials who appeared to be gaming the system, the needle appeared to move with calls for reform from Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council President Darrell Clarke.

Now Clarke has introduced a bill that the 20-year veteran councilmember says will make the process more transparent and efficient. The bill passed out of the Committee on Public Property on Tuesday and is slated to get a first reading on Thursday. It could be sent to the mayor’s desk for his signature as soon as next week.

The bill aims to enshrine the Philadelphia Land Bank as the principal vehicle for city land sales, streamlining a system that now divides municipal land sales between three agencies. The bill would eliminate the controversial Vacant Property Review Committee (VPRC), a layer of bureaucracy that Clarke inserted into the land bank’s process in 2012. It would also create a scoring process to evaluate city sales, require buyers do what they said they would do with the formerly public land and set a timeline for deals.

Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the bill would inject more strategy into city land sales while streamlining the process for redeveloping public land. No longer will lots simply go to the highest bidder without an eye to the city’s larger plans and goals, she said.

“Our hope is that the criteria around selection provides a little more balance around neighborhood needs and amenities, versus just flipping high value,” Quiñones-Sánchez said.

The reform would not affect the city’s tradition of “councilmanic prerogative,” which dictates that the legislative body gives councilmembers final say on the disposition of city-owned land in their district.

Unlike many of the other major pieces of legislation Clarke introduced at the end of City Council’s last session, this one is blazing through the system. The administration supports the bill though officials say tweaks are needed.

“We are still talking about what needs to be in legislation, and what can be in the policy language [of the Land Bank,]” said Anne Fadullon, head of planning and development for Philadelphia, at a Council hearing on Tuesday. “But we are in alignment on the major issues. Everyone agrees there is a better way than VPRC. Everyone wants clear-cut scoring criteria, and everyone agrees we want understandable timelines.”

Wanted: transparency and more clarity on terms like “social impact”

Clarke’s bill would set a precise timeline of 120 days for consideration of land sales, a change from the current system wherein bidders can wait months to hear back and sometimes never even hear anything.  

The bill’s proposed scoring criteria for deals would add another element of predictability to the process. It includes a precise metric for evaluating bidders that weights “economic opportunity and inclusion” most strongly, at 30%. “Social impact” is weighted at 15%, while financial feasibility will account for 20%. 

Under the bill, the scoring process can be avoided if an applicant wants to buy a property for use as a side yard, a non-profit community garden, or a project with over 51% affordable housing.

Fadullon said the city still has concerns with creating a universal timeline and process, given the complexity of some deals.

“There are issues with codifying the disposition process when what can happen on a piece of ground is so disparate,” Fadullon said. “We have anything happening from a side-yard to multi-year tens of millions of dollars development. To try and say they are going to follow the exact same process with this timeline is complicated.”

Housing advocates have their own concerns. The city’s tortured land sale process has long been criticized for advantaging politically connected applicants and moneyed interests. Now advocates want as much transparency as possible to ensure such issues didn’t reemerge after the reform. 

Affordable housing providers pointed out that definitions of terms like “social impact” and  “economic opportunity and inclusion” were not defined in the new scoring rubric. 

They also expressed a desire that the agency’s evaluation and the score of individual bids be made public after the process, regardless of the outcome. 

“The public must see the result of all scoring decisions,” said Will Gonzalez, executive director of the Latino advocacy group Ceiba. “This is basic due process, otherwise what is being created here is a secretive process that can lend itself to misuse in the wrong hands.”

Beth McConnell of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations voiced similar concerns. She also asked that affordable housing be precisely defined in the legislation as 80 percent AMI or below for rental homes and 120 percent AMI for owner units.

Optimism about more resources for the Land Bank

Lauren Vidas, a good-government advocate and former Land Bank board member who ran unsuccessfully against Second District Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson in the 2019 Democratic primary, said the bill is moving the agency towards its original vision. Still, she said, the Land Bank will need more resources to execute the goals set in Clarke’s legislation. 

“What’s going to be really, really critical is the resource issue,” Vidas said. “They need to make sure the Land Bank can actually follow up in 120 days, and follow up after construction to make sure the criteria have been met and the land is being used for what they said.”

Fadullon told PlanPhilly that she was optimistic about more resources coming. 

“There is potentially a transfer ordinance happening this month, and it would be great if part of that legislation helped resource the land bank,” said Fadullon.

Fadullon emphasized that the administration’s concerns with Clarke’s legislation are largely technical. There are clauses in the bill that contradict each other and need to be rectified. In other places, language in the legislation clashes with state regulations. 

Then there is the question of whether some of the provisions need to actually be added to the Philadelphia code legislatively, or whether the Philadelphia Land Bank could just handle the issues with internal regulations. 

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