Councilman Mark Squilla auctioned off nearly $2 million in city-owned land. What could go wrong?
by Larry Platt
On June 14, under the headline “Going once, going twice: Auction of blighted Philly lots is a big hit,” the Inquirer ran a largely congratulatory story about Councilman Mark Squilla’s unprecedented auction of 89 distressed city-owned properties, raking in $1.78 million. The sale, wrote reporter Tricia Nadolny, “seemed to offer a lively and entirely unbureaucratic way to handle an otherwise onerous task. It’s one Philadelphia has struggled with in recent years: how to unload the city’s huge stock of vacant, delinquent or blighted land, and get it back on the tax rolls.”
Nadolny is right; at a time when we’re wringing our hands over the school budget shortfall and an ever-increasing percentage of the city budget propping up our unfunded pensions, Squilla’s action was entrepreneurial and bold. The city owns something like 10,000 vacant properties, none of which pay taxes and many of which are aesthetic drains on their respective neighborhoods. And, despite endless talk of the city getting out of the landlord business, nothing much has seemed to change over the years.
City Council last year moved to solve this problem by passing Land Bank legislation, creating an entity to streamline the sale of city-owned properties. It’s worked in other cities—from Cleveland, Ohio to Macon, Georgia— to clean up the haphazard and often purely transactional way development happens. Supporters had reason to believe it would work here, as well. Yet here we are, mid-2015, and the Land Bank doesn’t even exist yet.
Just why is a City Councilman selling off city land, when there’s nothing in the City Charter granting the power to do so? Is this any way to run a city?
So Squilla took it upon himself to do something in his Councilmanic district. The Redevelopment Authority has long listed all city-owned properties for sale and has entertained bids for individual addresses. When a sale is settled upon, Council passes an ordinance, transferring the property. “If we’re doing this one by one,” Squilla recalls, “I wondered if this was an opportunity to put a whole bunch of them out there on the market all at once.”
Squilla and his staff worked for over a year to make the auction happen, working with the Redevelopment Authority and an auctioneer. They culled through the list of properties and gave community groups the chance to pull select properties off the block prior to the auction. “We wanted to make sure, if a community group was interested in bidding, they’d get a chance,” he says. In addition, Squilla added a critical caveat: The purchaser of any such property would have to develop it within 18 months. He didn’t want developers sitting on undeveloped lots for years. Continue reading