The road to passing the Pennsylvania Land Bank Act

Posted on



In October 2012, Pennsylvania’s Governor Tom Corbett signed into law the Land Bank Act (PA Act 153) enabling all counties and municipalities with populations of 10,000 or more, and consortiums of smaller municipalities, to create land banks. At the signing, the Governor expressed optimism, “This is a bill about community revitalization and protecting property values for families, who have worked hard, put savings into their homes and deserve to see every dollar they invested reflected in their property values.”

We talked with Liz Hersh, Executive Director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania (Housing Alliance), Rick Sauer, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations (PACDC) and Kim Graziani, Vice President of Capacity Building at the Center for Community Progress (Community Progress) about the advocacy and coalition-building efforts that helped bring the bill to the Governor’s desk and about the opportunities it presents.

The Need for a Land Bank

Vacancy, abandonment and blight affect communities across the state — both rural and urban. While there are over 40,000 vacant parcels in Philadelphia alone, abandonment is common across the largely rural state — with a statewide total of about 300,000 vacant properties. To address this challenge, local governments needed a flexible tool that would allow them to move blighted properties towards reuse and back onto the tax rolls. In response to this pressing need, the Housing Alliance a statewide advocacy organization, organized a broad coalition of stakeholders to work for land bank legislation. PACDC, a citywide membership organization that creates a supportive environment for community development activities, joined them. The Center for Community Progress provided language to the state legislators in drafting the bill, brought national partners to support the state coalition and provided training on land banking to help educate partners and leaders about the power and potential of land banks.

The passage of the Land Bank Act is the result of the coalition’s advocacy efforts. It allows municipalities to quickly and efficiently acquire properties that are considered a liability and to pursue reuse options that support community goals and local land use plans. However, land banking is not a panacea for all of Pennsylvania’s blight and vacant property problems, as both Hersh and Graziani are quick to point out. Graziani encourages communities to consider how their land banking strategy can be integrated into a broader framework for addressing problem properties that includes a range of policies from strategic code enforcement efforts to effective collection of delinquent property taxes.

Taking the Long View 

The process that led to the October signing was long and complicated, but started with a simple premise. The first step in eradicating blight, Hersh says, is to talk about it. “Everybody hates [blight]. It transcends [political party lines] and it’s both rural and urban. Once you start having that conversation, there’s a lot of opportunity to get people on board with solutions.” The Housing Alliance found support for land banking on both sides of the aisle. “It turns out blight is the common denominator in the Pennsylvania experience,” says Hersh. “Property rights proponents, bankers, realtors, land use planners, municipal officials and environmentalists all came together to work for land banks. They saw it as an opportunity to make a difference in our communities.”

Inspired after hearing Dan Kildee, who would later become Community Progress’ co-founder and first President, speak about land banking, Hersh invited Kildee to Pennsylvania to meet with a number of community leaders and policymakers. The legislators who participated in that conversation — in particular State Representative John Taylor — saw promise in the idea, and went on to introduce and champion the land banking bill.

Hersh explains that it took several attempts — and three legislative sessions — to draft theright land bank bill, educate the legislators about its value and build the necessary support.

The bill was the culmination of a campaign by the Housing Alliance that began in 2003 with the research and publication of Reclaiming Abandoned PA. The Alliance began by working for bills that incrementally eliminated state barriers to local blight remediation efforts. By taking small steps, they and their allies were able to educate the legislators, build a stronger coalition and begin to educate and empower communities to begin to use the new tools. By the time land banking was introduced and gaining momentum, there was broad consensus of its value.

“[We] started with legislation that simply removed barriers to remediate blight, and then moved from eradicating barriers to creating tools,” Hersh says. “We had this theory that if we moved the legislature through incrementally, by the time we got to the land bank, which was a dramatic departure from what we’d done before, [residents] would be familiar with blight tools, we’d have a fertile ground and they’d understand and be receptive to [land banking].”

In addition to encouraging ongoing, incremental policy reform, the Housing Alliance and PACDC worked closely with other stakeholders over the next few years to build momentum through education and outreach. “We organized conferences and hearings, brought in outside experts and worked with Community Progress to solve technical issues in the bill that were confusing or drew opposition,” Hersh says. “With Community Progress’ assistance, the Housing Alliance identified not only likely supporters but also those who might initially stand in opposition.”

The team’s dedication, flexibility and focus on the most important aspects of the bill paid off. In the end, the bill had bipartisan support from state politicians. In addition to State Representative John Taylor, who was the primary sponsor of the Pennsylvania Land Bank Act, other political champions included State Representative Chris Ross, Chair of the House Urban Affairs and Housing Committee at the time and State Senator Gene Yaw, the former Chair of the Senate Urban Affairs and Housing Committee. To keep the momentum moving forward, Senator David Argall, (Current Chair) has publicly committed to sponsoring new legislation to provide revenue for demolition, rehab and other blight solutions.

Philadelphia’s approach

PACDC was convinced that a land banking system in Philadelphia could make it easier for developers to access the 10,000 publicly-owned vacant parcels and additional privately-owned vacant properties in the city. By supporting a two-phased approach to system changes, PACDC hoped to increase short-term opportunities for reuse of these properties as well.

In addition to participating in the state coalition, PACDC also advocated for a range of local reforms, including the creation of a single point of entry for those looking to acquire City-owned property. In 2012 the City launched Philly Land Works, an online connection to the available inventories of three of the four primary land holding agencies in the city. For the first time all three agencies were guided by the same written property disposition policy.

PACDC and other stakeholders also continued to work towards a city land bank through the Philly Land Bank Alliance. The Land Bank Alliance has created a unified voice of diverse citywide organizations — including Next Great City, the Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land, the Building Industry Association and the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors — calling for a more effective approach to vacant land. “We’ve seen the importance of having outside stakeholders play an active role in the process and not just leaving it up to public officials, but making sure that whatever solution is crafted is responsive to the end users,” Sauer says.

To further help inform residents and encourage them to express support for a land bank to their elected leaders, PACDC worked with Next Great City to launch a website, which offers many resources on land banks and the pending local ordinance. Their efforts have garnered widespread media coverage and generated endorsement by over 400 individuals and 80 organizations via a sign-on campaign posted on the website.

Moving Forward

Passage of the legislation last year was cause for great celebration — the dedication of the Housing Alliance, PACDC and their many partners paid off. But there is still much more work to be done to make sure the new law leads to community change. On March 20, the Housing Alliance and Community Progress organized a statewide land bank training event in State College. Over 100 government officials, community development professionals and redevelopment authority staff from around the state came to hear from Frank Alexander, land banking practitioners from Ohio and New York and local experts to explore whether a land bank is a useful tool for their communities.

Community Progress is now working closely with the Housing Alliance to provide training and technical assistance to communities throughout the state who are interested in land banking. They are making the video of the training available as an online resource for communities looking to start their own land banks. Additionally, Graziani says she is looking forward to working with the Housing Alliance to provide customized technical assistance to those communities ready to move forward. “We are working with local leadership in those communities to help them understand not only how to create and operate a land bank but also how land banking can work in conjunction with other tools such as code enforcement and tax collection to address their inventory of vacant and abandoned properties,” she says.

In cities and states with successful land banking systems, community members have seen gardens, housing, retail, restaurants, schools and green space emerge in place of dangerous eyesores and empty lots. After a long and challenging road to the land bank bill’s passage, the bill’s partners and champions hope to see similar opportunities come to fruition in communities across Pennsylvania.

Sauer describes his enthusiasm by calling the new bout of legislation a “game changer.”

“Especially at a time when the City and school district are in need of additional revenue and when studies show that vacant properties lead to higher crime,” Sauer says, “we’re excited about getting these vacant properties back on the tax roll and back into productive use.”