Philly Finally Figures Out How to Sell Properties

Member Group : Guest Articles

The city recently auctioned 89 vacant properties, expecting to bring in $1 million but took in $1.78 million. Could this be The Answer?

Maybe, but it also raises a few questions.

Why does the city own this property in the first place?

The city should not own a single property that it does not have a short-term plan to use. Period.

However, the city owns about 10,000 vacant properties. None are on the tax rolls. The city has maintenance responsibilities for them. Unfortunately, many times it doesn’t clean vacant lots or keep vacant buildings up to code. It doesn’t even shovel the walks when it snows.

These properties hurt their neighborhoods. Vacant buildings are fire hazards and magnets for illegal activity. Vacant lots attract trash and other waste. They drag down property values, and therefore tax revenues.

Some of the money from the sales could be used to enforce the maintenance of vacant lots and keep vacant buildings are up to code. Enforcement encourages development.

What has taken the city so long to auction off properties?

This is not rocket science. If you have property you don’t use and don’t need, you hold an auction. Advertise the sale and sell the properties to the highest bidders. Simple.

This is particularly important in Philadelphia, with its heritage of corruption. An open, transparent auction can maximize the value received and minimize the concern of a shady deal.

Why did Councilman Mark Squilla have a role in this process?

The plan to conduct the auction was announced by Squilla, not the mayor’s office or any city agency. Why did Squilla make the announcement?

The news said Squilla selected 157 properties for auction that were owned by the Redevelopment Authority, the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp., and the city. Squilla said that up until the day before the auction his office was pulling properties off the list because neighbors or community groups had expressed interest but weren’t ready to buy.

Where in the City Charter does any councilman have the right to select city-owned properties for sale or determine how they are to be sold or to whom? Is there any ordinance that vests this authority in the hands of an individual councilman?

We all know there is no such authority. Squilla exercised something known as "councilmanic prerogative." No law permits this. It is a practice of Council members, in concert with the mayor and other city agencies, to use the authority of the government to give them an advantage in their reelection and their exercise of political influence.

Will those neighbors and members of community associations that had properties taken off the market be more likely to support Squilla for reelection? You bet. And we all pay for that since the property is not sold, the money that would have gone into the city’s coffers does not, and property taxes are not being paid going forward. Consider it your personal contribution to the councilman’s reelection campaign.

Land Bank? Isn’t there a Land Bank?

Yes, Virginia, there is a Land Bank. It was created by Council in 2013. It is supposed to streamline the sale of those 10,000 city-owned properties. Shouldn’t it handle such sales? How many properties has it sold so far?


Of course, the success of this auction makes you wonder why we even need a Land Bank.

Here’s the bottom line: Auctioning off unused and unneeded city property will benefit the city, but it is up to you to hold our elected officials responsible to make it happen and ultimately to elect a mayor and City Council that will act in our interests rather than their own.

Matt Wolfe is a Republican ward leader in West Philadelphia who writes on behalf of the Philadelphia Republican City Committee. [email protected]