Blight

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.

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