Habitat Sees Promise in North Philadelphia’s Vacant Land

by Troy Hannigan

Habitat Philadelphia is investing in our neighborhood!  We were recently awarded a competitive Vacant Land Technical Assistance grant to study vacant land in Lower North Central Philadelphia together with Project H.O.M.E., a local non-profit focused on issues of homelessness.

The technical assistance included two topics:  First, an analysis of vacant land that was completed by Interface Studio, and their recommendations for reusing this land; and second, a Community Land Trust (CLT) feasibility study done with consulting from John Davis of Burlington Associates.

The technical assistance was funded through a grant from the Oak Foundation to the Women’s Community Revitalization Project (WCRP), which completed a similar vacant land study and formed the Community Justice Land Trust for their neighborhood in Eastern North Philadelphia. WCRP’s project is off to a great start, and we were eager to think about our own neighborhood in a similar way.  HFHP & Project H.O.M.E. worked with the consultants and an advisory group of organizations and neighborhood stakeholders from October 2012 to June 2013 to discuss vacant land reuse and the concept of a community land trust as a possible tool to maintain housing affordability in Lower North Central.

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The vacant land study examined the 112-square block portion of Lower North Central that spans from 17th Street west to Ridge Avenue and 25th Street, and from Master Street north to Diamond Street.  This neighborhood is the home of HFHP’s headquarters and within this area HFHP has built 74 affordable homes.  The Lower North Central area has experienced massive disinvestment and decline since its heyday in the 1950s, and the growing number of vacant lots or abandoned houses here is directly related to high levels of poverty and crime.  Still, our neighborhood is vibrant and welcoming, filled with renters, homeowners, families and seniors, many who have been here for decades.  Our neighbors take pride in the community, and they deserve support from the institutions (like Habitat) that are a part of it.

This portion of Lower North Central is at a turning point; significant vacancy and blight remain, which present both opportunities and threats.  In the past decade, the housing market in the area has changed drastically.  The presence of Temple University’s main campus (directly east of this area) has been driving renewed market interest.  Thousands of homes and apartment buildings have been built, renovated, and marketed as student rental units.  With market pressures pushing from gentrifying neighborhoods to the south, student housing pressure from the east, and a long-term community of predominately low-income families, residents and community leaders fear displacement by rising housing costs, whether through increased rent or rising property taxes.

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A field survey found that almost a quarter (24%) of all land parcels in the neighborhood are vacant; the 1,344 vacant lots and 388 vacant buildings here are equivalent to 52 acres—or the area of 47 football fields!  Citywide, roughly 25% of vacant land is publicly owned, but in the study area 50% of vacant properties are owned by public agencies (for example, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, and others).  An additional 43% of vacant properties in the area are tax delinquent.

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The study concluded that 93% of vacant properties in Lower North Central are susceptible to a change in ownership.  Change could be a good thing if it’s driven by the community—ideally, property would change from a public or negligent private owner to community ownership, through the creation of a Community Land Trust.  A CLT is a ‘bank’ of properties that is managed by a community-based group, which acquires, develops and manages those properties with the interests of the community in mind.  The idea of a CLT is similar to a Land Bank (a system which Philadelphia’s City Council recently passed in landmark legislation), but in contrast to a Land Bank, a CLT is smaller in size and not operated by government.   A number of recommendations were developed from the Vacant Land Study, which you can read here.  Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia is evaluating the concept of a community land trust with a group of Habitat stakeholders to see if the CLT model would be good fit for the organization, and for the communities and families with whom Habitat partners—in order to provide sustained long-term affordable housing opportunities for Philadelphia’s low-income families.

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If you have any questions about Habitat Philadelphia’s ongoing work with vacant land and community land trusts in Lower North Central, feel free to reach out to Troy Hannigan, Project Manager, at troyh@habitatphiladelphia.org or 215-765-6000 x29.

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About Habitat Philadelphia

Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia is an independently chartered affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI), the largest nonprofit homebuilder worldwide. Locally, Habitat Philadelphia is on a mission to transform lives and our city by building and repairing quality homes in partnership with families in need, and uniting all Philadelphians around the cause of affordable housing. Our Vision is a city where all Philadelphians live in safe, affordable homes.
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