The Land Bank has promised to simplify, publicize and expedite the process by which the City of Philadelphia acquires vacant property from speculators, cadavers and slumlords. As originally proposed, the Bank enjoyed a good deal of autonomy. But last minute changes to its legislation instead subordinate it to the Vacant Property Review Committee (VPRC) and City Council. This is a very bad thing.
Legislated into existence earlier this year, the nascent Land Bank will circulate a draft of its policies this October, according to a recently distributed memo. Its board will soon after welcome comments on that draft at a series of public meetings.
Wait. What was this Land Bank thing again?
The Bank will inherit 9,500 vacant properties from the three city agencies that now hold most of Philadelphia’s publicly owned vacant land: the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, the Philadelphia Community Development Corporation and the Philadelphia Department of Public Property. It will purportedly provide a centralized and hassle-free “front door” for those interested in purchasing this property.
It will also perform necessary “inventory and mapping of vacant properties in each census tract,” according to its legislation. In addition to publicly owned vacant properties, this map will include properties “that are privately owned and delinquent as to municipal taxes or claims.”
Another big part of the Land Bank’s job will involve helping the City of Philadelphia get its paperwork straight regarding the vacant property it now owns—or rather, more precisely, subcontracting that responsibility to contingent workers. It has approved a $198,000 contract with the University of Pennsylvania, which will in turn task a fleet of interns with fixing “long-standing problems in the legal record of public property ownership,” according to the Bank’s recent memo.
Again, late amendments to the Land Bank’s legislation by City Council President Darrell Clarke mean the VPRC—and Council by proxy—will have final say over what the Bank does. But what exactly is this VPRC, anyway? And why exactly is it a very bad thing that this committee will maintain some control over this particular decision-making process?
The Committee is by some accounts the main dragging force on vacant land disposition in the first place. Some believe retaining its input creates a bureaucratic bottleneck and basically precludes the possibility that the Bank can actually do anything to improve Philadelphia’s vacant land disposition process.
The VPRC has since the 1970s held monthly, tribunal-style hearings at City Hall. It assesses bidders’ proposals to acquire tax delinquent, uninhabitable, vacant, abandoned properties and those deemed to otherwise cause nuisance. City Council then ratifies the Committee’s decisions by way of resolution.
Acquiring a vacant parcel in the city is at present a tragically slow, confusing and generally dysfunctional 54-step process. It can involve anywhere between 12 and 15 different city agencies depending on who you ask.
The most commonly cited problem with the VPRC and its involvement in this process is that it works extremely slowly. The Committee at its most recent August meeting approved title transfers for four vacant parcels. 40,000 parcels in Philadelphia were vacant in 2010, according to a widely cited estimate.
The Committee will at this rate have successfully reviewed all of Philadelphia’s vacant parcels by the year 2847.
Many other such problems are readily apparent at contemporary VPRC meetings and have been documented since the 1990s. Independent research groups, major Philadelphia newspapers and at least three separate city agencies have since then called for the VPRC to either reform or disperse.
The Philadelphia Daily News obtained an unpublished 1992 report by the Mayor’s Housing Task Force, which called upon city government to “overhaul the system for dispensing vacant properties to interested developers, a process currently handled by the nine-member Vacant Property Review Committee.” This report never circulated outside city government according to John Kromer, a former director of the Office of Housing and Community Development.
A Vacant Property Research Initiative report recently indicted the VPRC as “more reactive than proactive when it comes to addressing the scale of [Philadelphia’s] vacant property problem,” due to the ruminative pace at which it operates.
A 1995 report by the City Planning Commission on file at Temple University’s Paley Library likewise found that the VPRC was not “adequately staffed to administer a timely and predictable disposition process.” It also found that “procedures for the operation of VPRC have not been updated to deal with the increased disposition of the Committee.” Land bids, the report continues,
often get lost in the City’s bureaucracy. While property transfers typically take anywhere from six months to two years to complete, there have been cases that have taken five or more years to process… In these instances, attention to the original disposition request occurs only after a second applicant has requested the same property, sometimes years later.
It would be a mistake to assume the Committee acts this slowly due to an exceptionally prudent methodology.
The VPRC in 1987 pledged property to a low-income family, then reneged and granted it instead to a state representative’s son, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. The new owner subsequently received $30,500 in improperly allocated federal funding to renovate the property. The Inquirer in 1993 found that the VPRC had unwittingly sold property to high-profile gangster John Stanfa.
Deputy City Controller Gerald Micciula supplied for this post a 1993 audit performed by his office that critiques VPRC procedures, or rather in instances the lack of it, at length. Auditors for example found “no established procedure for requesting inclusion on the VPRC agenda,” and that “[p]olitical influences impact the speed at which a project moves along or survives at all.” Accordingly, a recent Philadelphia Daily News report found that the real estate development community donated about 42% of City Council President Darrell Clarke’s entire 2011 re-election campaign fund.
Another problem with the VPRC is that only political insiders seem to understand how it works. The City Planning Commission argues elsewhere in its 1995 report that there existed “virtually no printed material available for the public to use and assist them with the VPRC process.” Aside from confusing and irregularly supplied memos and transcripts, this claim remains accurate.
The Planning Commission maintained that the
format of these [VPRC] meetings also discourages the general public from acquiring surplus properties. On many occasions, applicants have been required to sit through lengthy proceedings, only to have their agenda items tabled because of some unresolved administrative detail. These applicants are then further inconvenienced by having to attend subsequent meetings.
For lack of anything nice to say about the Committee, they are quite consistent. The majority of those who bid at the VPRC’s August meeting indeed appeared unfamiliar with the protocol. VPRC appointees seemed to lean in with technical questions when they sensed hesitation from bidders. Two bidders left mid-meeting, confused over pricing issues. Attorneys and professional private developers were by contrast asked few questions and navigated VPRC proceedings with minimal friction.