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Philly Picked Up The Pace Of Vacant Land Transfers In 2022, But It Still Fell Well Short Of Goal

Newly released data shows how far Philadelphia has to go to turn its glut of blighted land into an engine for creating affordable housing.

A plot of vacant land at the corner of York and 17th streets in North Philadelphia

In fiscal years 2021 and 2022, the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. conveyed a total of 124 parcels of vacant, city-owned land according to a report published Wednesday disclosing data for those fiscal years, which ran from July 1, 2020, to June 30 of this year.

Overall, the city owns over 5,300 lots eligible to be used in disposition programs, and has disposed of only 359 lots since FY2017, according to the city's data dashboard for the Philadelphia Land Bank

With the lion's share of vacant, city-owned properties concentrated in areas of high poverty, that land has been discussed for years by local officials and developers alike as a potential revitalization tool to reduce blight and increase the city's stock of affordable housing.

The data released on Wednesday shows how little that tool has been used.

But the next two years may look very different, since nearly all of the data in PHDC's report came before Philadelphia City Council passed its Turn The Key initiative in April. Under the program, developers will receive land to build single-family homes to be sold for no more than $280K, with the city providing financial assistance to low-income families to help cover mortgage and closing costs.

Developers and observers may be skeptical about how much will change, since a bill meant to accomplish a very similar goal — turning over vacant, city-owned land to developers at little to no cost in exchange for pledges to develop affordable housing — passed in early 2020.

Since then, the pace of dispositions has only increased marginally, and far less than the city hoped. 

PHDC's goal for FY2022 was to create commitments for 316 housing units out of land it transferred to developers, but it only wound up achieving 129 units' worth of commitments, per the Land Bank dashboard. 

City Council President Darrell Clarke, speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony for The Hamilton.

Unlike previous policies aimed at vacant land disposition, Turn The Key is part of Council President Darrell Clarke's $400M Neighborhood Preservation Initiative, and as such, came with real budget dollars attached.

The first group of properties to have been identified for Turn The Key is almost exclusively within Clarke's district, District 5, which contains 37% of the vacant lots owned by the city.

In FY2022, 34 lots were sold from District 5, while 68 such sales happened in District 7, which contains 17% of the city's vacant land. Through the period covered in PHDC's report, District 7 was represented by former Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez before she resigned her post in September to run for mayor.

PHDC controls the operations for the Land Bank and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority after replacing the much-maligned Vacant Property Review Committee in 2019. But in order for city land to be released to developers, a resolution needs to be passed in council for each parcel, leaving the ultimate fate of such land in the hands of the council member whose district contains it. 

Once a council resolution releases a parcel for disposition, PHDC publishes a request for proposals — often doing so for assembled groups of properties to make a housing project viable.

PHDC has had several open RFPs on its website at various points throughout the year, but none as of Nov. 3.

Another initiative launched over the course of the fiscal years and highlighted in PHDC's report is the Minority Developer Program. The program enrolls mostly small or newly formed development companies owned by people of color in training and mentorship programs to take on projects in general, and to win RFPs for Land Bank lots specifically.

The first class of MDP had 24 enrollees out of 70 potential candidates, and PHDC expects to welcome another class in 2023, the report stated.