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William Penn Foundation
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?
Today's installment in Patrick Kerkstra's Plan Philly/Inquirer series on property tax delinquency digs deeper into the relationship between property tax delinquency and blight, and how a strategically-designed collection system could support redevelopment.
It's well worth reading and discussing, as it encapsulates the hard policy decisions that need to be considered in order to even begin changing the status quo. These should be central as the Ross and Taylor bills are amended and improved in Harrisburg, and our city government considers how to weigh in to that process as well as act locally on near-term legislative and administrative reforms.
* What pace of tax or lien foreclosures can the market absorb before property values become depressed and supply outpaces demand?
* How can we make sure the new owners are more responsible than the old ones?
* Does the City want to own all this land in advance of development interest, and take on responsibility for maintenance and liability?
* What will it take politically to move from five entrenched public or quasi-public agencies which own land, to a new system with centralized inventory and processes?
* How can we improve protections for low-income occupants, so we can keep people in their homes and avoid new costs from increased displacement and homelessness?
$472 million in uncollected property tax looks to be this year's $1.5 billion - the estimated unpaid court fees and forfeited bail that is now being collected by aggressive private firms following the newspapers' revelations of long mismanagement at the disbanded Clerk of Quarter Sessions. Time will tell if the property tax numbers in a report by PlanPhilly.com (in partnership with the Inquirer) draw the same sustained public attention, and spur creaky systems to change.
But a similar, fundamental, error already looms. In a city with a persistent 25% poverty rate, and glaring hunger numbers (1 in 2 people in Philadelphia's First Congressional District, as reported last week), much of that debt is simply uncollectible. It's not hiding under beds and in nightstands. A significant amount of tax and water debt can and will never be collected. We are stuck, rock and hard place, Scylla and Charybdis: leaving all that debt in place burdens title, increasing abandonment and blight, and complicates efforts to get people to pay their current and future tax debt.
It's easy to sell papers and get column inches with the accusation that government inaction and unfairness is costing those of us who followed the rules and paid taxes and bills on time, particularly against the backdrop of budget crises that are starting to look apocalyptic for states and cities. And it's not untrue. But it's mostly beside the point.
Look at the options presented, essentially two. One: quick and mass foreclosure. Two: unload the problem by selling off the debt itself to private third parties, who should have market incentives to foreclose and no meddling City Council members to interfere. Both are misguided for reasons amply suggested by the study's own data.