Banking on a Land Bank to Transform Philly

Land Banks have helped other cities speed up the process of revitalizing blighted areas

Philadelphia’s strategy for dealing with thousands of blighted, vacant and abandoned properties could soon be “in the bank.”

There is a proposal for Philly to join dozens of other jurisdictions nationwide, becoming the largest city to institute a land bank -- a type of collective that proponents say will simplify the process of purchasing and fixing blighted properties.

“You want to make it easier for responsible owners to put (land) back into use,” Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations Executive Director Rick Sauer said.

The basic idea of the land bank is that it serves as a centralized entity that can efficiently handle maintenance, sale and redevelopment of properties that are currently owned and managed by a slew of city agencies and private parties -- all with their own processes and expectations.

The land bank would allow anyone who wants to develop or re-purpose vacant property or land, to deal with one strategic authority rather than many.

Sauer’s PACDC has joined dozens of other community groups, builders, realtors, environmental and anti-blight organizations to form the Philly Land Bank Alliance and launch its website,, less than a month ago. The group is dedicated to getting a land bank in place to deal with the approximately 40,000 vacant or abandoned properties around Philly.

Currently it could take years to acquire land for redevelopment and to buy three or four properties next to each other you might have to go through three or four entities. The land bank would serve to speed up the time period for land development and make it less confusing and easier because there would only be a single entity to buy the land from.

“It’s a public good,” Sauer said. “These vacant properties right now are dragging down the values of adjacent homeowners, costing the city over $20 million a year just to maintain and in most cases they’re not paying taxes so they are a drain on the city’s services and resources.”

A 2000 Brookings study found that the drain goes beyond just the vacant properties. A home within 150 feet of an abandoned home loses an estimated $7,600 in value.

Land banks can use resources -- even money -- to strategically deal with transforming properties that are currently costing the city money so that they can be usable again, maybe even made into moneymakers.

Thanks to land banking, places like Cleveland, Ohio have recently renovated, rather than demolished, unused properties. In one case, a developer received a loan in the amount that demolition would have cost, to create low-cost loft homes instead of another vacant lot. In another instance the land bank facilitated vacant homes to be used by immigrants in need of affordable housing.

Bringing a land bank with similar programs to Philly isn’t a new idea. It's been talked about and supported for more than a decade. A 2001 report on Blight Free Philadelphia by the Temple University Center for Public Policy, proposed creating a sizable land bank to enhance property values in the city's neighborhoods where the vacant properties are most concentrated.

“If we can actually get those properties back on the tax rolls it’s going to benefit the city longer term and build a stronger tax base both for city services as well as for the school district,” Sauer said.

The land bank policy is finally looking like a real possibility, because it may have the support it needs in City Council. Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sanchez and Councilman Bill Green recently proposed a bill that would create a Philly Land Bank..

“The benefit is that it allows the city to really articulate a redevelopment strategy,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez agrees that the measure will also help with Philly’s bottom line.

“If we’re doing it right, we’re re-purposing them and they become tax-producing properties,” Sanchez said. "The big winner in all this is the city of Philadelphia."

Proponents say ridding neighborhoods of blight should drive down crime while increasing property values. It can also help create construction and commercial jobs, Sauer said.

Sanchez says she first became interested in the idea after meeting with representatives from Genesee County (Flint), Mich. more than four years ago. She has since met with people all over the country and in the region to discuss the idea. A big hurdle was cleared when the state recently passed measures that open the door for local municipalities to start land banks to combat vacant properties.

The issue spreads far beyond Sanchez’s 7th District that covers parts of North and Northeast Philadelphia, which is hard hit by vacant land. Land bank supporters say that every section of Philadelphia is dealing with underused vacant properties.

The hope is that the process of revitalizing land becomes easier and fairer. “There’s a lot of transparency and accountability built into the process” to ensure that delinquent landowners don’t get access to more land, Sauer said.

Currently Sauer estimates it would take the city 100 years to sell off its properties. A land bank should dramatically decrease that timeline, Sauer said.

"In Philly, many of the properties are smaller, like abandoned row homes and people looking to acquire those properties might not even know where to begin. We really need a system that works for everyone, eliminates the hurdles," Sauer said.

Sauer says the plan is for a new board to be established from development and community representation that would report to a city agency. Currently four city agencies, including the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, own about 10,000 properties -- the other 30,000 are privately owned.

Each ownership group has a different policy currently to get rid of the properties, a land bank would create a single strategy for redeveloping “all encompassing” neighborhoods while allowing other city agencies to focus on other problems facing the city, Sanchez said.

The new use of the space could be for everything from community gardens to business and housing developments. A Penn Medicine study found a direct correlation between greening previously vacant lots and decreasing crime and health ills.

Sanchez doesn’t foresee any problems big enough to hold up the plan and expects council to vote on the proposal before summer break.

“There is no downside when you’re adding efficiency,” Sanchez said.

She believes there is enough support among her colleagues to get the bill passed, hopefully before they go on summer break, making it possible to begin the land bank by 2014.

Council President Darrell Clarke supports the measure as does Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who is hopeful that the city can put a dent into the 40,000 or so unused properties that have remained vacant or abandoned for years.

“It streamlines how we, as citizens, go after these vacant properties,” Reynolds Brown said. “We can decrease those numbers, dramatically.”

Sanchez will meet Tuesday with other members of Council to discuss her plan and the proposal could be debated in Council by the end of the week.

“This is the right time to do this because we have done this whole zoning change that’s getting mapped out and we have a planning commission with the tools and the expertise to strategically work with the land bank,” Sanchez said.

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