In the medium run we really need an amendment to the Philadelphia Home Rule charter transferring the power to sell city-owned properties from City Council to the Mayor’s office.
That would be an excellent way to weaken Councilmanic Prerogative – the unwritten agreement whereby Council members afford each other total power over land use decisions in their districts. The Prerogative gives special interest groups of near neighbors too much say in which land parcels shouldn’t be sold for development. That leads directly to situations like we see in the Point Breeze neighborhood, where dozens of unkempt Redevelopment Authority-owned vacant lots pockmark the land because Councilman Kenyatta Johnson doesn’t want developers to build anything.
The At-Large citywide view – where more infill housing development puts downward pressure on rents and asking prices for new home buyers, and brings in more tax revenue for the city – is taking a back seat to the District/NIMBY view – where new housing is primarily a nuisance because of parking. That’s why the power to sell city land needs to be stripped from City Council and moved over to one of the Mayor’s administrative offices.
The proposed land bank, which we’re going to hear about at today’s public hearing, could be tasked with selling this land if we cut Council out of the process through a charter amendment. As it stands in this latest bill, the way property will get sold by the land bank is through a vote of the Vacant Property Review committee. And the only voting members on that committee will be the 10 District Council people. That sounds to me like it’s just enshrining Councilmanic Prerogative, with each member deferring to the District Councilwoman’s preference on votes affecting properties in her district.
Now you could imagine a policy where the land bank board recommends a whole tranche of properties to sell, and then the Vacant Property Review committee takes an up-or-down vote on the whole tranche. But I’m pretty sure that is not something District council members would vote for, or abide by.
This isn’t going to be sustainable and Council does need to get cut out of the process. What about speculators though? Isn’t the hyper-local view going to be more sensitive to the neighborhood harms inflicted by people buying and sitting on properties indefinitely? No.
Kenyatta Johnson is arguably one of the biggest speculators in the city right now, inflicting worse blight on his neighborhood than most private speculators get away with, simply by refusing to let PRA release properties to interested developers.
The best way to deal with speculators is by taxing speculation directly. A land value tax and a land bank are two great tastes that taste great together. Once the city has sold a vacant land parcel, you want the tax on that land to be high, and the tax on building something to be low. A high enough land value tax would certainly do a better job than District Council members of protecting neighbors from blightlords because it would push people to sell or build. Above a certain land cost, it is not economically viable to not build an income-producing structure, because the price of not building is so high.
We do not need District Council members to personally sign off on the sale of every one of the 10,000+ city-owned land parcels. We can design a land disposition process that is non-political and gives real estate market actors the good incentives they need.