Banking On It: PA land bank bill one step closer to passage

Vacant land in South Philadelphia | Image via planphilly.comRemember that vacant lot in your neighborhoodthe one you always thought would serve the neighborhood better as a community garden than a dumping ground? And remember how complicated the process was to even consider the space for redevelopment?

With 40,000 vacant lots throughout Philadelphia, this is a common problem—just finding out who owns the empty property can be a challenge. But with the approval of a bill (HB1682 and SB1414) on April 3 by the Pennsylvania State Senate Urban Affairs and Housing Committee, Philly is a step closer to having a new way to deal with this issue.

Under a unanimous vote, the bill pushes the initiative to allow local governments to establish land banks. More than 75 local governments throughout the country already have similar land banks in place. Creating a land bank in Philly would give the city government the power to purchase, or obtain by other legal means, vacant land parcels to maintain and eventually sell. Currently, 75 percent of vacant land isn't owned by the city. Instead, it's owned by private individuals, making the selling process lengthy and often complicated, especially when ownership histories are unclear.

To outline the details of exactly how a Philly land bank would operate if this statewide bill is passed, Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez introduced an ordinance back in February. If her proposed legislation is approved, a Philly land bank would be established within the six months following the date of approval.

According to Quiñones-Sánchez‘s ordinance, the land bank would be created “to return vacant property to productive status using a unified, predictable, and transparent process, thereby revitalizing neighborhoods and strengthening the City’s tax base.” The ordinance also requires creating a land bank website with information, like who owns the area and how much they paid for it. The site would feature a map illustrating the locations of all the property in the land bank as well as other properties known to be vacant in Philadelphia. There would even be opportunities to grab some land on the cheap, since the ordinance includes provisions to offer reduced prices to buyers who plan to do something community-friendly with the land, like start a vegetable garden.

The state bill still has a long process before final approval—it’s in the Senate Appropriations Committee now for evaluation—so, if you can’t wait to start your project, try a program currently in place to deal with these neighborhood eyesores. The city’s Vacant Lot Program, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Vacant Land Stabilization Program and, one of the latest blight removal initiatives, the Pennsylvania Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act all aim to transform abandoned land into clean, safe space.