PHS vacant lot program threatened

For three years, Penny Giles of the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corporation has been putting people to work mowing grass and removing beer bottles and tire parts from vacant lots. “I’ve got six people working for me this summer,” she says, “taking care of 400 parcels.”

In a few days, though — if the Nutter administration goes ahead with its announced budget cuts — Giles may be forced to send those workers back to the unemployment line. Her organization is one of 15 community groups now receiving contracted funding (of between $35,000 to $70,000 annually) under the auspices of Community Land Care, a program that’s part of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s larger vacant land management program. That program is now threatened with the loss of all of its city funding, which this year amounts to $2.4 million.

The money typically covers personnel and equipment associated with regular cleaning and maintenance of vacant lots (another program goes further, replanting some lots with seeds and new trees after they’ve been mowed and cleaned). Giles says she pays her workers $8.75 per hour and has to budget for equipment purchases like commercial-grade lawn mowers which run between $2,500 and $5,500.

Although she gets smaller grants from other sources, including Councilman Darrell Clark’s office, she says “there’s no way I could do this work without the PHS contract. It’s what allows me to fulfill my mission of revitalizing our neighborhood.”

According to Robert Grossmann, director of PHS’ Philadelphia Green, which administers the programs, the cost of this ongoing work amounts to about a penny per square foot per visit, with 2,300 parcels being maintained every two weeks from April to October.

“We’re a very small part of the effort and money that the city spends overall on various forms of vacant property management,” he says.

Although the majority of the lots are privately owned, Grossmann continues, it’s much more effective to use public funding to clean and maintain them than to track down non-active owners and begin a lien process. “The city’s turned over the authority to abate a nuisance to us,” he says.

The program’s strength rests on its regularity, Grossmann adds. “Anyone can call L&I and ask them to look at a lot that’s become blighted — and the managing director’s office will send out a crew for a one-time cut,” he says. “But if people don’t see an empty lot as something that’s continually tended to, it doesn’t take long for them to start caring less about it.”

Last year, he continues, when state budget issues forced a temporary suspension of the program — all city vendors were sent packing for six weeks — “the lots we maintained went back to their blighted state instantly, and the amount of dumping on those sites was incredible.”

The vacant land program started in 2000 as an outgrowth of the Street Administration’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, where empowerment zones were created around newly-cleared land.

Since then, the PHS program has reclaimed more than 10 million square feet (or about 5,000 of the 40,000 abandoned lots that litter the city) of blighted land and employed more than 200 through community organizations like the one run by Giles, as well as social service programs like Ready, Willing and Able, and SELF Inc., a recovery residence program.

Alexander Weems manages a crew of 20 community land care workers from the latter agency. “Losing the ability to take care of those parcels would be devastating in all kinds of ways,” he says. “As we speak, the grass is growing and it won’t take long for the 400 lots that we maintain to look like jungles.

“I have pictures of what they used to look like and it’s amazing, the transformation,” Weems continues. “And, we have decreased crime — because people can’t use the lots as hiding places for themselves or for drugs. What we are really are is crime fighters!”

He may be right, says Grossmann. “We are working with researchers at CHOP and Temple on a study that shows that the presence of blighted properties — whether vacant land or buildings — is the single greatest predictor of violent behaviors in a neighborhood,” he says. Researchers are matching police reports, mapping software, and culling through PHS data to look for correlations, Grossmann explains.

The program’s also served as a symbol for other big ideas like green-jobs-for-the-future, and it’s been studied as a model for other cities. It’s also been linked to an increase in real estate values and viewed as a catalyst for land redevelopment, according to PHS.

About that last, Weems agrees. ” Definitely, after the lots are stabilized, people are more likely to become interested in building on them,” he says. Then he laughs, adding. “Not that it matters. I lose a lot, I gain one. The addresses just change. Buildings are always being torn down around here, and there’s always a new empty lot. This job has no end.”

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