Philadelphia's broken process for disposing of the city's vast land holdings is finally getting the attention it deserves, but many of the critiques and proposed solutions so far have missed the mark. The problems start further upstream from where some Councilmembers and administration officials are focused, at the very beginning of the process when people first try to acquire city land.
In response to a series of articles showing that a friend and campaign contributor to 2nd District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson flipped city land that he acquired for the stated purpose of creating side yards and affordable housing, and that the Council-controlled Vacant Property Review Committee obscured interest from over a dozen other potential buyers, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority has frozen city land sales until a new process is put in place.
Everyone has been focusing on downstream accountability issues, like creating new processes for clawing back city land that's been misused for uses other than the stated purpose, or where buyers don't begin construction in a timely manner. But as we've pointed out before, the biggest problems start further upstream with the issue of who has the power to kickstart the land sale process in the first place. William Bender's most recent article about the land sale freeze gets at this point:
The [Vacant Property Review Committee] makes recommendations to the Redevelopment Authority on the sale of land owned by the city’s Department of Public Property. The Redevelopment Authority acts as the settlement agent and its board then votes on approval of the sales.
Recently, however, the VPRC’s oversight and record-keeping have been called into question.
In the case of Johnson’s developer friend, Felton Hayman, the VPRC failed to disclose that other developers had submitted expressions of interest for the sought-after properties, which should have triggered open bidding. The VPRC also initially inaccurately described Hayman’s intended use for three of the properties as “side yards,” not to be developed. Hayman built homes there that sold for as much as $415,000.
The FBI in November subpoenaed city records pertaining to the most recent Hayman transactions, in which he purchased two lots for $65,000 and quickly resold them for $230,000.