Land Banking and Community Land Trusts: Strategies for Reclaiming Philly’s Vacant Properties

Philly Land Bank sign

Philadelphia recently established a land bank, an increasingly popular tool for Rust Belt cities to address struggles with post-industrial vacancy. While land banking can help facilitate the process by which vacant land is put back into productive use, it can also perpetuate cycles of uneven development and disinvestment if land only goes to the highest bidders for market rate development. That is why some have been advocating for more democratic ownership and control of land through community land trusts (CLTs). As Philadelphia implements its new land bank, there is the opportunity to partner with CLTs and increase control over development by low-income communities and communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by disinvestment.

Kasia Hart recently completed a case study of the Philadelphia Land Bank for her Masters Thesis at Tufts Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning. Her paper based on her thesis recently won the Vacant Property Research Network’s student scholarship award for 2015. This paper clarifies the different functions of a land bank and CLT and explores their partnership potential in Philadelphia.

Download the paper here.

Summary of Paper

Communities facing widespread vacancy know all too well the multitude of burdens associated with abandoned, blighted, and tax-delinquent property. From lost property tax revenue, decreasing local property values, higher crime rates, and rising public health concerns, the consequences of extensive vacancy are cyclical and multifaceted. The real challenge with vacant property lies within historically racist practices that have caused vacancy to fall disproportionately in low-income communities and communities of color. Framing these communities as blighted and in need of revitalization are not necessarily done in an effort to improve quality of life within these neighborhoods; rather, this framing reveals the systematic marginalization of certain populations, a practice that has fueled urban change in the U.S throughout history.

Fortunately, there are several tools available that can help turn vacant property from a burden into an asset. One strategy that is gaining traction in the Rust Belt, a region in the Northeast and Midwestern portion of the U.S. that is struggling with post-industrial vacancy, is land banking. A land bank is a public authority responsible for acquiring and managing public and privately owned vacant properties, and then clearing title and disposing the property to an entity that will develop the land (Burlington Associates 2014). While land banking has the potential to intervene in the marginalization of specific communities and provide land to organizations that are accountable to the community, it also can perpetuate cycles of disinvestment and neglect if it solely disposes land to the highest bidder for market rate development.

A community land trust (CLT), on the other hand, is a nonprofit organization that takes land out of the speculative market and maintains long-term stewardship of land so that it can be utilized for community benefit (Democracy Collaborative 2014). This model recognizes the inherent use value of land that has been compromised under today’s dominant capitalist economic paradigm in favor of generating the highest exchange value so that land control is retained in the hands of a few elites. Despite the different functions of land banks and CLTs, they are commonly viewed as competing urban land management strategies. The purpose of this paper is to not only clarify the different functions of a land bank and CLT, but also to explore their partnership potential in the context of the newly formed Philadelphia Land Bank.

The following paper details three strategies Philadelphia Land Bank stakeholders can take to strengthen its relationship with local community land trusts and ensure that residents will have fair and equitable access to land from the land bank. The strategies include:

  1. Create a resident advisory committee within the land bank governance structure that acts as a liaison between the residents and the land bank board.
  2. Collaborate proactively with existing CLTs, such as the Neighborhood Gardens Trust and the Community Justice Land Trust.
  3. Consider the role of CDCs in facilitating this partnership.

While these strategies are not a silver bullet to creating a land bank that prioritizes community benefit in all property transfer decisions, reframing thinking using these strategies will help ensure that the Philadelphia Land Bank retains its progressive, community-based identity that was established in its formation. This kind of partnership can encourage development that happens with residents’ best interest in mind, allowing land to be used as more than a platform for market-rate development that drastically alters a community’s character. The Philadelphia Land Bank has the potential to demonstrate how land banks and CLTs can be used in conjunction with one another and support long-term community leadership on local land use decisions.

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Distinguished Senior Lecturer and Director of Master of Public Policy and Community Practice, Tufts University Department of Urban & Environmental Policy and Planning

One thought on “Land Banking and Community Land Trusts: Strategies for Reclaiming Philly’s Vacant Properties

  1. I can’t wait to read this paper! That summary is thoughtful and insightful; I’m glad to see a strong equity lens used to examine land banking and the ways that it can either interrupt or perpetuate land use and environmental injustices.

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