Philadelphia City Council

My Journal Entry in the Chronicles of "Trying to Fix the Vacant Land Problem"

I'd hoped to write here earlier about my work on all of this, the "land bank bill" introduced by Councilwoman Sanchez and the new vacant land policy being proposed by Mayor Nutter, and respond to some of the recent online discussion. No way it doesn't sound like an excuse, but I've been busy.

As most of you know, I work as a lawyer and legislative assistant in Maria Quinones Sanchez's office. There are a lot of ways I could spend my time in this job, and use my expensive education to try to help the city. But so far, since my focus is housing and vacant land, by far most of my time is spent navigating our land acquisition and disposition systems. That's helping, or failing to help, constituents get abandoned private land and publicly-owned land - elderly Puerto Rican couples who have been growing food across the street from their house for 20 years; nonprofits looking for more secure space; churches trying to stabilize their blocks; urban farmers; artists creating galleries; activists desperate to keep drug dealing and all the associate violence from metastasizing in empty buildings and lots. Nothing moves, or nothing moves without a truly epic amount of unnecessary work. It's Sisphysian. It's endless. It's wasting my time and my tax-funded salary. (For the record, it's not that big of a salary.)

Yesterday our great architecture columnist Inga Saffron meditated on Twitter that the problem moving that vacant land out of public inventory is "politics." (And, mostly mystifyingly, that "city policies and politics encourage owners to use vacant lots for parking, billboards & other unproductive uses.") This is seeing the symptoms and misdiagnosing the disease.

As far as I see, glaring problem number 1 is our lack of modern and coherent computerized infrastructure to manage vacant land. Glaring problem number 2 is current policies for acquisition, disposition, and pricing that do not match the needs or market conditions of most neighborhoods in the city. Both of those keep land stuck for years, often decades. Our Council office tries to help these stuck wheels move for our constituents and developers, but sometimes we are an obstruction. That's because glaring problem number 3 is lack of affirmative land use planning that would give us some metrics to agree what uses should go where. For a given proposed transaction, we don't get meaningful information about who the applicant is, what they want to do, whether they can actually do it, and then we have figure out whether we think what they want to do makes any sense, because we get no meaningful planning or policy guidance as to whether, say, selling a residentially-zoned lot to someone who lives a block away for parking is a good idea. Which is all not to defend or condemn "councilmanic privilege." But that practice exists now in the vacuum created by a dysfunctional system, and in part fills its gaps. If we get to a future system that is computerized, more transparent, and has written policies, the Council role in land disposition - whatever it ends up being - is going to function a lot differently.

Which brings me back to my first link, Patrick Kerkstra's article from this week about where we are with all this. If and when the city launches its "front door" to coordinate land sales, several big steps will have been taken. The Redevelopment Authority commissioned and is implementing a new database system that will contain files that are now inaccessible, and allow oversight and tracking of application status. That door will be at least cracked for more accurate pricing methods, appeal of absurd appraisals, and reduced or nominal price for a greater range of uses - uses the city already subsidizes one way or another and tries to encourage left and right in neighborhoods that have, as Dan pointed out in that Twitter conversation, negative land value.

But we'll still need a land bank, which is just a way of saying 'a more efficient vehicle for handling vacant land.' Otherwise there are still different agencies, different incentives and motivations, fragmented title, duplication and overlap, and time and money lost internally coordinating all of that. We've had massive cuts of the federal and state dollars that we've been using to run our current housing and land agencies and programs, and the cuts are continuing to come. We can't afford to leave the existing "alphabet soup" in place. We need to look top to bottom, probably with outside help from a foundation or university, and think about how we need to restructure that system to avoid duplication and get the most out of those shrinking resources.

The land bank bill, as introduced, is not meant to create a new and separate entity. It starts with the premise that whatever agency manages acquisition and disposition of surplus vacant land should have that as its mission and specialized focus (and the Public Property Department should be free to concentrate on managing active public facilities, and not need to play real estate agent). It also acknowledges that the Redevelopment Authority (PRA) must exist in some measure, because only it has legal power from the state to condemn blighted land for redevelopment. The land bank would exist in relationship to the PRA (either the PRA as an arm of the land bank, or vice versa) - one staff, one office space, but distinct rules and governance structures based on existing legal requirements and what fits the city's needs.

Some of the improvements mandated by the bill: a computerized, accessible inventory of public and privately owned vacant land; a system for getting ongoing notice of the status of vacant parcels; a strong role for community plans and the coming Comprehensive Plan; written policies that are updated biannually through a public process (a huge change!); requirement for ethics and conflict of interest policies, developed in the same public way; annual reporting.

But there's still a lot to figure out, including the best way to structure and improve Council's role in the process. Cleveland has a sign-off sheet, where all agencies, including the legislature, okay each transaction. We could have hearings, which have the advantage of being public but the disadvantage of taking time and resources. There's no magic answer, but the land bank is essentially a blank canvas to structure a system that actually makes sense, and the discussion is still active and open as to what that should look like - please continue to comment and give feedback, and please advocate loud and hard for change. The day I can permanently delete my Excel spreadsheets tracking hundreds of uncompleted property transfers seriously can not come soon enough.

8th District Hopefuls Jordan Dillard and Cindy Bass Join Ed Feldman on G-town Radio This Week

The road to the 8th District council seat passes through G-town Radio’s Morning Feed with Ed Feldman.

This week Ed will be talking to Jordan Dillard on Tuesday, March 8, and Cindy Bass on Wednesday, March 9.

Archived shows, including Ed’s interview with Verna Tyner, are available at the G-town Radio website.

G-town Radio hopes to have all of the candidates visit before the May primary. Listeners can catch the live broadcast and ask the candidate questions by calling 215.609.4301 or sending an IM to gtownradio.

Morning Feed with Ed Feldman is your daily feed of news, commentary and everything else Ed Feldman can think of, broadcast live each weekday from 9 to 10 a.m. on G-town Radio, the sound from Germantown at gtownradio.com.

In Philadelphia, the Underdog Always Wins

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of our cities proudest attractions. In many ways, it is the heart of our city. From the July 4th Welcome America festival to the Live 8 concert, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is the face that Philadelphia shows the world when we want to shine.

Philadelphians show our pride by donating more than $6 million to the museum by way of city contributions, direct payments, subsidies, assistance and special breaks.

Our city has a long and proud working-class history. The museum is known as much for its world-class collections as it for the underdog, working-class champion, Rocky, who bounded up the steps in that iconic film. This love for our working roots has been celebrated in our city laws when our City Council adapted one of the most progressive Prevailing Wage Laws in the country.

Process matters

City Council deliberates on the Mayor's proposed budget every year in a tedious, but important, hearing process that stretches out over two months. This year's hearings begin on Tuesday, February 26 with a look at the proposed Five Year Plan. On Wednesday, Council will take up the tax bills that have been introduced, including the proposed changes in the BPT and the wage tax. The following week there will be a hearing on the capital budget. After that, each week for the following six weeks (with a one week break) all the City Departments will appear, one after the other, to make their cases for whatever it is that the Mayor wants for these Departments. The last of the scheduled hearings is to take place April 15. Two weeks later it will be the turn of the School District, whose leaders will testify on April 28 and 29.

Tales From the 8th

Doron Taussig, of the City Paper, has a story this week on my favorite City Council district- the 8th.

The occasion of Taussig’s piece is the fact that, yet again, in the upcoming general election, Donna Miller has three opponents, giving her an easy ride into office. The reality, of course, is that Miller, in a general election, will not be beaten unless that independent candidate has massive amounts of money to fund a ground game and door to door, intensive campaign that can convince reliable Democrats not to vote for her.

The article gives the rundown on the district that many here are familiar with. But, I thought now, a little bit removed from the election, it might be useful to go into a little bit of details from my dad’s campaign, and from what I learned about our two other ‘progressive’ candidates. (Yeah, the quotations imply something.)

And, if I were in the 8th? I would without question vote for Jesse Brown, who in my opinion is by far the best candidate of the bunch.

OK, where do we begin?

First, I guess I mine as well state upfront: I thought my dad did an amazing job as a candidate, in terms of stump speeches, talking with people, getting volunteers, etc. He had no organization behind him, no base to lean on, and it made it all really difficult. That said, despite everything and despite the other two candidates, I think he could have won. There were some basic mistakes the campaign made, that if he ever were to run again, would not happen. But, it was his campaign, and everyone who was inside it thought there were some serious flaws, and they weren’t fixed. So, that is his responsibility as ‘the guy.’ This was a low-information campaign. And to really unseat an incumbent with the party behind her, you had to really have a better strategy at getting those low-information voters. It did not happen. So, point blank, he sort of blew it, first time candidate or not. It would have been hard- but he could have won, and he didn't.

So, lets start on what I learned about the lessons I take away from the various players in the election:

Candidate One: Greg Paulmier.

Greg Paulmier is a guy who cares about his neighborhood and his neighbors. I think everyone gets that. He is also a total, 100 percent megalomaniac. During the campaign, Greg was basically going around telling people his goal was in reality to come in second place, which he thought would set himself up to win when he... ran for the fourth time. Seriously. He really does not seem to have any concept of all the ill-will that he has built up.

Greg also talked a lot about progressive groups backing a single candidate. When every progressive group save NOW (which Bass is a board member of) endorsed my dad, and Greg was booted from the ballot, did he decide to support one candidate? Of course not.

In fact, when he was removed, Greg’s ward was going to support... Donna Miller, because the goal was not for her to lose, it was for him, and only him, to win. But, why go on about him? I think everyone pretty much understands him at this point.

Candidate two: Cindy Bass.

When Bass originally was asked about booting Paulmier from the ballot, she said something to the effect of ‘if you cannot fill out forms, you shouldn’t be in office.’ Cindy, unfortunately, did not seem to pass her own test. In fact, she was recently referred to the DA’s office, because she never followed some of the most basic, fundamental campaign finance laws. For example, Cindy did not even authorize a political committee.

She also did not file a finance report in the last week of the campaign until I mentioned it on YPP. When the campaign was over, it was not until a Gar Joseph column that she filed her final report. Oh, and late in the game she accepted money from Chaka Fattah far above campaign contribution limits. In other words, she currently has an unauthorized committee, with illegal contributions in it. (Still there, I think, as a gift/nest egg from Congressman Fattah.)

So, if you consider following laws, especially campaign finance laws, as something marginally considered ‘progressive,’ then I am really not sure Cindy should be considered for progressive support in the future. (Whether she is running for Council, State Rep, whatever.)

The media:
What can I say? The Philly political media basically had a blackout of the District Council races. As I mentioned a while back, I thought the print media did a decent job of covering the Mayor’s race. But in the 8th? There was basically nothing until almost the last week of the campaign. If reporters feel like they have some civic responsibility to help inform the issues, then they need to really look themselves in the mirror before the next set of political races. Really, the only thing that got press in the Council races were ballot challenges, and things of that nature.

It certainly hurt my dad, at least a little bit, when the papers endorsed Bass. So, I sent an email to the Inky, saying hey- Bass did not even file a campaign finance report, and wondering how that would effect them. My claim, easily checked with a quick phone call, was ignored as coming from the son of a candidate, too emotionally invested. The editorial boards of the papers constantly decry the status quo, but, when a Council candidate was running directly against that, they just ignored it. (And, I also mentioned to them that Cindy herself was driving around with her nephew, trailing a Fattah van, with her nephew hopping out to taking down signs for her opponents.)

And, on a personal note, in a City with a quarter of the population in poverty, there was that snide, arrogant note in the Inquirer editorial about my dad being a ‘populist,’ as if that was a bad thing. I will never, ever, ever, ever, forget just how stupidly out of touch that comment was.

The wards, and the system:
For all that talk of reforming the ward system, etc, let's be clear: Out of all the wards in the district, the 9th Ward was the one and only one, to actually hold a vote on who to support. If they actually held elections, maybe something would have been different. But, that is the system- totally ward leader driven.

Additionally, what was also clear was just how the judicial election process fuels this whole thing. In the last week or so of the campaign, Donna Miller's campaign coffers were swelled with huge donations from judges that the Part steered her way. That is, in effect, how she was able to afford to have about 16 people at each polling place.

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People have asked me whether my dad will run again? Well, I ask him the same thing all the time! The campaign was incredibly stressful though, on everyone involved, on our family, on our family's friends, etc. so, I have no clue. I hope he does, because he would flat out be great. But will he? I have no idea.

The 8th can and should be won by a progressive, whether that is my dad or someone else. Bass and Paulmier, however, do not count.

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