City Hall: Council Committee Approves Changes To Land Disposition Process

The Committee on Public Policy and Public Works of Philadelphia City Council recently approved bill 190606, which would streamline the process by which city owned vacant property is sold in the city. Currently, the process can be difficult to navigate and time-consuming. 

Under the new ordinance, landholding agencies such as the Department of Public Property and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority would review the applications of those interested in purchasing land and set conditions of sale, eliminating the Vacant Property Review Committee (VPRC). Applicants will receive a determination on their application within 120 days, and the Department of Planning and Development will develop an annual Uniform Strategic Plan that will set goals and outcomes for vacant land dispositions.

Currently, all property dispositions go through the VPRC, a board comprised of city officials and council staffers. 

In a press release, Council President Darrell Clarke said an internal analysis of City land sales and feedback from partners precipitated the legislation.

“We believe that these reforms preserve the needed checks and balances in the disposition process as well as Council’s responsibilities under the state code,” Clarke said, via the press release.

Anne Fadullon, the director of Planning and Development for the City, testified that the bill has administration support and is a bold and substantial proposal, but many details remained to be decided.

“It’s complicated,” Fadullon said when asked by Councilman Bill Greenlee why the bill, introduced June 20, was still not yet finalized. “(The administration and council staffs) met five or six times since the bill has been introduced. This is 13 pages of legislation, it’s pretty sweeping.”

Fadullon said the bill required the consideration and melding of multiple state and local laws, and that the requirements of each was satisfied.

“I also think there’s some issues with codifying pieces of the disposition process when what happens on a piece of ground is so disparate,” Fadullon said. “For example, we have anything happening on properties from a side-yard to multiyear, tens of millions of dollars of development.” 

Fadullon said creating a system by which each transaction follows the same timeline and process is complicated. 

Greenlee then asked Fadullon if it was reasonable to expect the bill to be voted out of committee and passed within two meetings.

“I think we’re working toward that,” Fadullon said. “I’m not able to commit to that right now. This is a big deal, and we want to make sure we get it right.”

During the hearing, Councilmember Maria Quniones-Sanchez said the legislation would create a more transparent and quicker process that would help the city dispossess properties.

“There are 40,000 vacant properties, and they keep accumulating,” Quinones-Sanchez said. “We all agree that the level of disposition that has been done in the last few years is not enough and that we need to build that capacity.”

Regarding the influence that Councilmembers will retain despite these new policies, Quinones-Sanchez said the level of council involvement will remain the same, but the new processes would create a criterion that everyone must follow.

“People submit an application, the administration does an assessment of that,” Quinones-Sanchez said. “The assessment should determine whether it fits in-line with the strategic plan, and the goals of the neighborhood before it brings it over for council to do the resolution to move it to sale.”

Quinones-Sanchez said the bill also gives applicants a degree of predictability.

“We’re going to respond to you in 120 days,” Quinones-Sanchez said. “There’s a criteria, which gets a little tricky between a big development versus a little development. I believe we can come up with a criteria that we can allows for transparency and still meets the goals. Those are not conflicting ideas.”

Patricia DeCarlo, director of Norris Square Community Alliance, testified the bill does not go far enough in addressing those who have had their property taken from them due to deed issues, sheriff’s sale, or outright fraud.

Patricia DeCarlo testifies at the Public Policy and Public Works Committee, October 1, 2019.

“(Council) needs to figure out a way to do that simply,” DeCarlo said. “Because going through an adverse possession, getting an attorney to represent them for free is a headache. I’ve been trying for the past four of five months.”

DeCarlo also said the City’s Land Bank is not following its own guidelines in regards to affordable and workforce housing developments, which allows developers to acquire property for a discounted price.

“We have people building 60-80 units, five stories high that they call ‘workforce housing,” DeCarlo said. “(A) one bedroom (apartment goes) for $1,200-1,400. Really? That’s workforce? Who can pay that kind of rent? That’s all they’re building on little blocks with two-story row-homes, and then you have these (buildings).”

The bill will be considered, barring amendments at the next general session of council.

Lawrence McGlynn is a recent graduate of Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication where he earned a Master’s in Journalism. For the next several months he will be reporting out of City Hall on various council and committee meetings, the city’s budget, and how these impact the daily lives of Philadelphians.

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