To Fix the Land Bank, We Need to Cut City Council Out of Approval Process

(How to fix land disposition)

A package of Land Bank process reforms moved out of a key City Council committee this week, and now goes to the full Council for approval. If enacted, the changes would represent some important advances for the Land Bank in terms of a more transparent and rule-based process for selling city-held land, but unfortunately, they still leave the biggest problem untouched—the City Charter's requirement that City Council pass an ordinance to sell any land.

With the ordinance requirement still in place, District Council members will continue to exert as much influence over land sales as they always have, and the new and improved process will amount to little more than official window dressing. 

We've written previously about the complicated land sale process which, even after the Land Bank was created in 2013 to streamline things,  is still too opaque and open-ended in ways that are designed to maximize District Councilmembers' discretion. 

The new package of bills makes a couple of big improvements like cutting out the Vacant Property Review Committee—a Council-controlled body that enabled some of the worst land scandals that surfaced this year—along with creating an official scoring system for purchase requests, setting a 120-day deadline for decisions, and putting in place more safeguards to ensure buyers do what they said they will.

Jake Blumgart has a run-down of the proposed changes:

The bill aims to enshrine the Philadelphia Land Bank as the principal vehicle for city land sales, streamlining a system that now divides municipal land sales between three agencies. The bill would eliminate the controversial Vacant Property Review Committee (VPRC), a layer of bureaucracy that Clarke inserted into the land bank’s process in 2012. It would also create a scoring process to evaluate city sales, require buyers do what they said they would do with the formerly public land and set a timeline for deals [...]

The reform would not affect the city’s tradition of “councilmanic prerogative,” which dictates that the legislative body gives councilmembers final say on the disposition of city-owned land in their district [...]

The bill’s proposed scoring criteria for deals would add another element of predictability to the process. It includes a precise metric for evaluating bidders that weights “economic opportunity and inclusion” most strongly, at 30%. “Social impact” is weighted at 15%, while financial feasibility will account for 20%. 

Under the bill, the scoring process can be avoided if an applicant wants to buy a property for use as a side yard, a non-profit community garden, or a project with over 51% affordable housing.

Shining more light on the decision-making process, unwinding a duplicative Council veto point, and setting a reasonable turnaround time for responses are all positive moves, although combined with some of the other changes, it feels a bit like we're taking two steps forward, and one step back. 

The idea of selling land to the highest bidder is seen as repugnant by some, but it's never really been clear why. The money we get from land sales doesn't vaporize into thin air, after all—it gets spent through the City budget, which contains a lot of progressive priorities people like, such as schools, parks and libraries, and dozens of different social services. Would it really be so terrible to have some more money flowing toward all the things the Mayor and City Council democratically decided to prioritize this year?

In theory, it's possible that leaving some public money on the table in order to prioritize some individual parcel-level deals that Council members claim will have a high "social impact"—a term that remains undefined in the bill—could improve on the social impact of spending that same money through the City budget. But it seems just as likely it could have a weaker impact than simply funding our democratically-chosen priorities.

It also seems like a pretty bad idea to exempt side yards and community gardens from the scoring process altogether. That's essentially saying that a side yard or a community garden is always a better outcome than having some more space for people to live or work, which might be true sometimes, but not universally.

By way of a personal anecdote, about two years ago a former neighbor of mine bought a rowhouse-sized lot from the Land Bank on Blair St in Fishtown, where a lot of other homes are getting built just a 3-minute walk from the Berks El station. My neighbor told the Land Bank, and Councilmember Quinones-Sanchez, in his application that he was going to turn it into a community garden space. But then his wife ended up getting a job in Vancouver, they moved away, and nothing ever happened with it. He still owns the lot, but for the past year, it's just been sitting there getting overtaken by weeds. And even though the most obvious use for it at this point is just to become another rowhouse, it'll probably continue to sit there for years and years.

This is why every city lot should go through the same scoring exercise, so decision-makers can grapple with the trade-offs in each case.

Unfortunately, as long as the Charter continues to require a Council ordinance for all land sales, and as long as the informal tradition of Councilmanic Prerogative continues to put that ordinance power into the hands of a single person, we're going to keep getting discretionary decisions no matter what the official process supposedly is. The current bill is a good step, and the increased transparency will help journalists and interested citizens track what is happening, but to really change the power dynamics, we need a Charter change or even state legislation removing the ordinance requirement.

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