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.
It all sounds pretty good, no? But, as former Republican Council candidate Matt Wolfe pointed out on philly.com, a slight problem arises when you stop and ask yourself: 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?
Cities, after all, don’t just happen. Ideally, they result from transparent urban planning, not backroom transactions. Here, where the shame of Councilmanic Prerogative reigns, the inverse has often been true. It is a longstanding gentlemen’s agreement on City Council that the 10 District members control development in their own legislative districts. What does this mean? That they hold disproportionate power. It’s great that we’re getting some fresh faces as at-large Council members, but the irony is that—though they are elected citywide—at-large members have less power than District members. Why? “Because District councilmembers have the land,” one Council staffer explains.
Think about that: We have 10 mini-mayors, yea-ing and nay-ing development in their Districts, in safe seats with a history of low voter turnout. Not only is there scant political accountability, ours is a system rife with a base transactional culture whereby developers complain about having to deal with District members who always have their hands out, palms up. We’ve had three Councilmembers—George Schwartz, Rick Mariano and Leland Beloff—go to jail for shaking down developers. (At least we’re not Chicago, where nearly a dozen Alderman have been imprisoned for abusing the Windy City’s version of the tradition.)
But forget for a moment the degree to which Councilmanic Prerogative invites corruption. Even if the process were pristine, this ad-hoc, Wild West approach to planning makes it all the more difficult to shape the city as a whole. If we want to be one city, we should have one vision for what it’s going to look like. Councilmanic Prerogative makes that almost impossible.
So, yes, Squilla’s move to auction off city-owned property in his District was bold, but we can’t consider it in a vacuum. In a city where forward-thinking, smart policies have been crippled by a tradition like Councilmanic Prerogative, a Councilman selling off city-owned lots ought to set off a lot of red flags.
To his credit, Squilla gets that. “Look, I have concerns, too,” he says. “This was a pilot test. What I know is we can’t just keep doing the same thing over and over again. We can’t just keep taxing people and expect them to stay in the city. This was a way to get these properties on the tax rolls by trying something different. And I really believe we took politics out of it, by working with community groups beforehand and because I didn’t know who the people were that were bidding. This was a way to see what the market would bear.”
That may be true, in this case. But the real question is what kind of precedent this sets. Will we have nine other Councilmembers conducting their own auctions? That can’t make for smart governance, not at a time when the Imperial Council is on the rise. It seems like, when Council President Darrell Clarke decided not to run for mayor, he simultaneously committed to accumulating more and more mayoral power. Who can blame him? It would be cool to be mayor without actually having to run for it. More and more, to that end, he seems intent on stockpiling power—often by curbing the mayor’s ability to exercise his own. Clarke hires his own (competing) Harrisburg lobbyist, stops the $1.8 billion sale of PGW without so much as a hearing, and places on the November ballot a charter change proposal to create an “Office of Planning and Development” that, at first blush, could mean that we’d finally professionalize planning —but which probably is more about Clarke further chipping away at mayoral flexibility and potency.
Darrell Clarke is never not playing politics and never not looking to expand his power base, so the specter of his acolytes widening their spheres of influence—and, by extension, his—through the selling off of city land to highest bidders in districts throughout the city should be cause for concern. And it should lead to a question one wishes Council would ask itself more often: Isn’t there a better way?