Maria Quinones Sanchez

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.

Living in "Hamsterdam"

Some of you may know I work in the office of City Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez. The Seventh Councilmanic District starts a few blocks above Girard Avenue and slices up along the west side of Frankford and then Kensington Avenue, neatly avoiding any meaningful concentration of wealth or gentrification (Northern Liberties, Temple, Fishtown). If you think there is something fancy that might be in the district, like a beer garden or coffee shop or condoized factory, it turns out to be on the other side of the line. Instead the district sweeps in the remnants of our industrial corridors and the poor, vibrant but brutalized communities who were left living in that tiny two-story factory housing after successive waves of flight.

I work on housing and land issues, with a subspeciality in the variety of ways deeds are forged or otherwise stolen, and those stolen houses sold, mostly to unsuspecting unsophisticated Spanish-speaking victims who just want somewhere affordable to live. I try to figure out how to keep a slumlord's 400+ properties in foreclosure from being turned over to speculators or abandonment. I field calls from people trying to legitimately buy vacant lots, for side yards to keep the dealers out, or because they're the dealers and want to control the block. The names on those deeds are often Jewish people who left sixty years ago and then died. Nothing's ever probated, and there's no way to legally get almost any of those lots to people who can secure and care for them.

There are a lot of vacant properties in Kensington - the aerial view on Google maps is a beautiful deep green - and the work involved in trying to navigate the broken city systems that deal with those properties, and to push policy reforms to unbreak those systems, it's endless (my boyfriend can tell you he has to fight to get me to stop thinking about lots so I can fall asleep). All that's another news story.

This post is about Philadelphia Weekly's new list of the 'top ten' drug corners in Philadelphia. The last list, in 2007, had corners that were scattered around the city. 2011's are all compounded in the same tiny wasted stretch of Kensington where you find all those lots I dream about: "from Lehigh to the south to Westmoreland, roughly a half-mile stretch, and from Kensington Avenue to N. Fifth Street, a distance just less than a mile." It's a blunt tool, picking ten drug corners based mostly on arrest frequency, but it captures something bigger and truer: I know all these blocks, and the 10 corners featured are surrounded by 10 and 10 and 10 more of the same. "No area of the city came close to Kensington and Fairhill in terms of the density and brazenness of the drug selling."

This is Hamsterdam.

But what does it mean to have a de facto Hamsterdam in Kensington when people, families, senior citizens, all still live there?

How we run our schools: the budget fight within the budget fight

Yesterday School District officials presented their budget request to City Council - an additional $70-100 million above the regular allocation - to fill an over $600m projected shortfall. The hook is that the District has threatened to otherwise end a slate of programs that are more integral than accessory: full day kindergarten, schools that serve the most vulnerable kids, tokens that get students to and from school. Today Council will hear public comment, and has a long list of people already signed up to testify.

So despite reports that the mayor has already committed to find the money, there is no straight line to how this would get done. There seems to be deep public and political support for fully funding public education in the city, but no consensus yet as to the least painful way to raise the money.

And there are also sharp questions about the District's own spending priorities, powerfully outlined by Parents United (and posted by Helen, below). These questions only get fueled by reporting like today's Inquirer tally of the cost of the District's internal investigation into whistleblowing over its contracting practices. The District should respond, and hopefully this budget process can become a tool to compel a real two-way conversation.

While working for Councilwoman Sanchez, I had the opportunity to visit Fairhill Community School, one of the drop-out prevention programs that is threatened. Most often when kids are corralled onto a panel to talk to a bunch of politicians, no one says anything particularly interesting. But there, every student who spoke told an arresting story - of how they came to the school, and how the respect and engagement they felt there was unlike anything they had experienced before. Each kid was 1000% clear that they would have never made it through their regular high school, or had already dropped out, because the lack of safety and size at places like Fels made it impossible for them to get the support they needed to deal with school on top of pretty harrowing life circumstances. And many, many of these students were girls raising children. If the District did go through with ending alternative schools like Fairhill, aimed at drop-out prevention and returning kids to school, there is no substitute. These kids will not graduate. We can't seriously allow them to be treated as a bargaining chip in the budget, and at the very least any additional funds should be securely targeted for the threatened programs.

But there will surely be additional cuts (language support is proposed to be halved), given the shortfall. We have to look beyond the obvious crises and consider the full budget picture, and insist on a real role for the mayor, Council, and public in deciding priorities and how and where cuts are made.

Things I Am Not Sick Of

... Or rather, people I am not sick of, specifically three of them (Link:)

After learning that battered women in Philadelphia are largely responsible for serving their attackers with court stay-away orders, aghast City Council members yesterday called upon the Committee on Public Safety to explore alternatives to a process they deemed dangerous for abuse victims.

"The current system . . . is absolutely preposterous and untenable," Councilman Bill Green said in a statement. "Not only are we causing the abuse victim additional mental anguish, but we are placing the victim in additional danger of physical harm."

Green, along with Council members Maria Quinones Sanchez, Curtis Jones Jr. and Blondell Reynolds Brown, introduced a resolution authorizing the safety committee to hold hearings on the service of protection-from-abuse orders, or PFAs.

Yesterday's resolution was prompted by a Daily News series on domestic violence that ran in late December.

The series followed one victim's exhausting and frightening quest to serve her alleged attacker with a temporary PFA issued by Family Court.

Quinones Sanchez, Green, and Jones, Jr. To paraphrase my hero, Ronald Reagan, there they go again.

Basically, we have a stupid, asinine law that women who get protective orders against their abusers must... actually serve those orders themselves. If women felt like they were in danger, they could call 911 and get police to accompany them, which about half do.

I am sure calling 911 is a barrier for some women in the first place. And, even if the police do a good job of accompanying them whenever they are asked, it is ridiculous that we are putting abused women in the position where they have to unnecessarily confront their alleged abuser.

We have some good Councilpeople who have served for a while (Kenney, Tasco, Goode, etc.), but sometimes bringing in new people is simply helpful because they can look at stupid things that have gone for a long time, and simply say "WTF?"

My BFF, Donna Miller, is chair of the Public Safety Committee, and yet to set hearings. Hopefully this happens soon.

Nice job, Daily News. This is just another example of how important local print media can be.

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Update: Please see the comments below from Seth Levi, from Councilman Green's office, who clarifies (and corrects me, on) what exactly happens when woman get protective orders.

The administration comes out swinging for the BPT cuts, Maria Quinones Sanchez is at bat for everyone else

As sad as I am that Irv lost last May, I am proportionately that happy that Maria is in City Council advocating for her district and all the people in this city who keep being left behind as this city's rising tide lifts only some boats.

City Council signaled yesterday that Mayor Nutter would have a difficult time deep-sixing already approved wage-tax cuts for the working poor to help pay for his proposed business-tax cuts.

At least five Council members said in a budget hearing yesterday that they flat-out opposed or were deeply skeptical of calls to eliminate the so-called David Cohen tax credit, which was championed by the former city councilman, who died two years ago.

"With an acknowledged rate of 25 percent of our citizens in poverty, I'm not satisfied that we're presenting a budget where we are more aggressive on our business-tax cuts," said Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sanchez.

So far, the budget is good in many ways, and generally restrained. But that doesn't mean that criticism should be muted if it is due. Stan has been prescient on this:

Cohen's low-income tax credit isn't slated to go into effect until 2013, and its impact on the city's current five-year plan - the subject of yesterday's hearing - is minimal. But after the tax credit has been phased in, it will cost the city about $80.8 million in 2016, and the annual cost will continue to go up.

"It starts to take off and become a very sizable cost," said Steve Agostini, the Nutter administration's budget director. "You know, if folks want to . . . debate that, that's entirely legitimate, but we just want them to understand there's a price tag associated with it."

The administration's view is that its broader plan for wage-tax relief will benefit lower-income residents, in addition to other taxpayers. The city's wage tax was at 4.96 percent when the Cohen tax credit was adopted. Scheduled reductions to the tax rate and statewide casino revenue are expected to lower that rate to 3.11 percent by 2013.

Council members asked whether it would be possible to slow the city's scheduled wage-tax reduction rate in order to fund the tax credit for the working poor. Nutter's representatives acknowledged that was possible.

And I think priorities are a valid subject for debate and criticism.

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