City Land Sales Need Less City Council Meddling, Not More


Back in 2014, the City of Philadelphia created a Land Bank to manage the disposition of the City's huge stockpiles of vacant property. Philadelphia owns a lot more land than most other big city governments do, and people on all sides of this issue generally agree it would be a good thing if we owned less. 

Part of the problem has been that the properties were (and mostly still are) controlled by four different City agencies, and it has historically been difficult to figure out which agency owns which properties, or overcome the bureaucratic hurdles to releasing them. The Land Bank was created to manage all of that land in one place.

But another part of the problem has been that selling city-owned property is a very politicized process that's largely controlled by District Councilmembers. Even if all city-owned land is eventually managed by the Land Bank, properties still don't get sold unless a City Councilmember wants to sell them.

The source of the Council problem is in the city Charter, which requires a City Council ordinance to sell city-owned property. This process ends up being governed by the unwritten tradition of Councilmanic prerogative, whereby District Councilmembers are afforded unilateral control over land use and development matters within their districts by other District Councilmembers.

That means it's essentially up to one City Councilmember to decide whether or not to sell a City-owned property, opening the door to all kinds of exciting opportunities for political corruption, both legal and illegal. (Two former Councilmembers went to jail for crimes tied to the abuse of Councilmanic prerogative.)

The many people and groups who advocated for the creation of the Land Bank had a lot of different and sometimes conflicting ideas about how the land disposition process should work, and which types of uses should receive priority. Some of these disagreements are still live, and have been playing out in debates over the strategic plan.

But Land Bank advocates all generally agreed that it should become easier to acquire City-owned land, that the process should be less political, and that land should be dispersed at a more rapid clip. 

One person who never really bought into these goals was Council President and 5th District Councilman Darrell Clarke, who is holding onto more City-owned properties than any other Councilmember, and who worked until the very end to sabotage the Land Bank, and ultimately relented once a deal was struck to preserve an inappropriate level of discretion for City Councilmembers in the land sale process.

Ultimately a Council-controlled Vacant Property Review Committee was inserted into process, leading many observers to speculate (correctly, it seems) that creating the Land Bank would not result in an uptick in city land sales, and might even lead to more land hoarding by Councilmembers. So far, Councilmembers have voted to transfer precious few parcels into the Land Bank at all.

This is the context in which you need to read Darrell Clarke's op-ed from last week making the case for even tighter City Council control of land sales.

Clarke is miffed that the Revenue Department sent over a hundred tax-delinquent properties in his district to Sheriff's sale, bypassing Clarke's hold on them. Now he's calling for a moratorium on sales of tax-delinquent property until he can find a way to reassert control over that. He complaints that the Land Bank was holding the properties for strategic use as part of his workforce housing initiative, but with Clarke squatting on such a large expanse of property in North Philly, it's pretty hard to make out what's strategic and what's just regular old hoarding. 

The funniest part of the op-ed is when Clarke strongly implies that selling land parcels and allowing other people to build homes on them represents "the old, inefficient approach to development" compared to the horrendously expensive workforce housing initiatives he supports, which spend between $300,000 and $400,000 building each home.  

While there's no question that we need a major overhaul of Sheriff's sales, and more broadly, the real estate division of the Sheriff's office (which remains a corrupt backwater even after the FBI raid), the solution is not more City Council involvement in the land sale process--it's less.

Private developers are already building affordable workforce housing in Clarke's district for less money than the public workforce housing initiatives he favors, and in greater numbers. At $400,000 a home, Clarke and PHA's affordable housing approach is unaffordable and can't scale--especially now that federal affordable housing funding is shrinking, and more cuts are expected from the Trump administration and Congress.

Rather than hoarding properties and trying to micromanage large-scale housing construction projects, Clarke should sell his excessive city land holdings to local small-scale developers, get those properties back on the tax rolls, and get back to work on the big problems like closing the School District's $5 billion repair gap. 

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