We recently asked Amy Laura Cahn, a staff attorney at the Garden Justice Legal Initiative of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, to provide some insight into the City of Philadelphia’s recent decision to create a Land Bank. The Garden Justice Legal Initiative is also behind LA Open Acres’ sister-site Grounded in Philly. Amy Laura’s post below is a great primer for Angelenos to consider when thinking about potential policy changes that could be made to facilitate greater community access to vacant land. For more on land banking, visit here and here for a list of great resources. All photos courtesy of the Garden Justice Legal Initiative (Michael Paci and Swaroop Rao).

2012-07-08_Spruce Hill boxes

Garden Justice Legal Initiative (Michael Paci and Swaroop Rao)

In December of 2013, the Philadelphia City Council passed legislation to create a land bank – a public entity tasked with consolidating ownership of city owned property, acquiring vacant, abandoned, and tax delinquent private property, managing this inventory of land, and putting it back out to productive reuse.  Getting the legislation passed was a coalition effort, led by the work of the grassroots Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land and Philadelphia Land Bank Alliance of citywide organizations, as well as our political partners.*  The two coalitions brought to the table for-profit developers, realtors, builders, community development corporations, affordable housing advocates, architects, neighborhood associations, disability rights groups, labor, faith-based groups, and community gardeners and farmers.

While we have our different goals, the coalition building effort required buying into a common language.  With our political partners, we envisioned a land bank that was predictable, accountable, transparent, efficient, and equitable.  The resulting legislation calls for substantial and meaningful public involvement in decisions about communities most affected by vacant land, with four land bank board seats allocated for community representation.  The law mandates a robust planning process, including goal setting to encourage equitable redevelopment and assessment of needs and defined targets for affordable housing, as well as a range of other land uses beneficial to communities.  In fact, the law acknowledges the necessity for the land bank to support that range of uses — affordable or mixed-income housing that is accessible or visitable; economic development that creates jobs for community residents; community facilities that provide needed services and enrichment opportunities; side-and rear-yards; urban agriculture; and community open space — through reduced or nominal pricing.  As a community garden advocate, this last part is particularly meaningful — urban agriculture has been a Philadelphia tradition for generations without adequate pathways to preserve deeply rooted community spaces.  The land bank law has changed the conversation.

Garden Justice Legal Initiative (Michael Paci and Swaroop Rao)

Garden Justice Legal Initiative (Michael Paci and Swaroop Rao)

All of this sets the stage for the next step – a citywide discussion about what “equitable redevelopment” really means and to whom.  The final hearing prior to the passage revealed that even the multi-racial, cross-class, cross-sector coalition endeavor (with extraordinary community education led by Take Back Vacant Land) did not reach as far as it could and not everyone was brought along in the process.  Residents from primarily African American neighborhoods, who still live with the aftermath of urban renewal and other failed programs, stood up to raise concerns that the land bank would facilitate land grabs and made clear the need for greater transparency and better community representation.  One community leader cautioned that residents who have put time, effort, and resources into maintaining and farming on individual parcels would be priced out. Another shared that her community, too, wants better housing and abandoned land put to good use, but that residents need to better understand the law and the conditions it will create for the neighborhood before they can support the land bank.

All of this says to me that we need to expand the conversation.  We need community education about the role of the land bank and about what the law means.  We need to reach farther and deeper to ensure residents and grassroots groups have a voice in planning and implementation — not just three minutes at a public hearing, but a process to ensure that feedback is heard and incorporated.  And we need to give life to the concept that healthy and sustainable communities are built through a range of beneficial land uses and that residents have the tools to access land with the same level of efficiency as any corporate or nonprofit purchaser.

A student said to me recently that vacant land is not “the problem,” it is just a fact.  The problems are root causes of that vacancy – poverty, disinvestment, mortgage foreclosure, deindustrialization, the list goes on.  Similarly, the land bank is not the solution, it is just a tool. The success of this tool to be predictable, accountable, transparent, efficient, and equitable relies on all of us to make it happen and make it better.

*The Garden Justice Legal Initiative of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia was a participant in both coalitions.

2012-07-13 S Philly Garden

Garden Justice Legal Initiative (Michael Paci and Swaroop Rao)

Amy Laura Cahn is a Staff Attorney at The Garden Justice Legal Initiative of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. She can be reached at  acahn[at]pilcop.org or on Twitter @amylauracahn