$1 Land Sales and City Council's Role in the Blight Problem

In a follow-up piece to their earlier report on people flipping land they bought for $1 from the City, Claudia Vargas, Chris Williams, and Dylan Purchell found 500 examples of blighted or tax-delinquent lots owned by people who benefitted from $1 land deals, which were allowed to rack up garbage and tax debt totalling almost $900,000.

The City isn't always such a good neighbor with its own vacant properties, but as the trio of Inquirer reporters write, they're also not great at enforcing code compliance after the lots have been sold and people don't do what they say they will. Things have to get pretty bad before the City will take the necessary steps to try and take the land back, and the worst revelation in the piece is that City Council members have often intervened on the landowner's behalf when that's happened—even if it's a purported developer who's gone a decade without doing anything with the property.

The case of the Brooklyn Heights LLC is the most egregious one in the story.

As soon as Gillen started the process to take back some properties, the property owner would call the district councilmember or the mayor and complain, she recalled. Word would get back to her to cool off. “It ended up not being worth it.”

Brian Abernathy, the authority’s executive director from 2013 to 2015, said last month that former Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell intervened when he tried taking back 34 lots that the city had given to Brooklyn Heights LLC that were never developed. That developer has racked up 179 blight-related violations and owes $159,673 in back taxes.

“If Council and the mayor don’t agree this should happen, then the head of the Redevelopment Authority won’t be able to do anything,” Gillen said.

Elections have consequences and new 3rd District Councilmember Jamie Gauthier is quoted saying she wants to reverse that decision and come up with a better process for managing and disposing of public land in the district. Gauthier has been quoted elsewhere saying she plans prioritize public land for developing below-market rate housing. 

At a higher level though, the bigger problem is still that the city charter requires a City Council ordinance for any transfer of city-owned land. This is ultimately the source of a lot of the power behind Councilmanic Prerogative, and the part that tends to enable some Councilmembers' worst instincts for using their official powers to reward friends and punish enemies. But Council involvement has also tended to keep land in the hands of bad actors, which even when there's no corruption involved, has bad consequences for the people living nearby in terms of blight and unsanitary conditions.

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