Land Bank leaders laud affordable housing

2nd District Land Bank lots are densest in Point Breeze and Grays Ferry. Map provided by the Land bank.

The Philadelphia Land Bank may have become a reality with legislation that passed in the winter of 2013, but fast forward to the present, and things are really starting to progress in terms of Philadelphia’s activation of vacant, often blighted, lots. With news early last month of the Women’s Community Revitalization Project’s (WCRP) plans to coordinate with Citizens Acting Together Can Help (CATCH) to provide affordable housing on an approximately 32-residence collection of two large plots in Point Breeze, SPR checked in with WCRP, the Land Bank, and 2nd District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson’s office to hear about the future of the Land Bank in South Philly.

The Philadelphia Vacant Property Review Committee approved the transfer of two parcels to WCRP – 1308-1344 S. Capitol Street and 1400-1428 S. Taylor St.

“This development will provide affordable housing opportunities for low-income renters, who are particularly vulnerable when area rents rise sharply,” Johnson said in a statement. “We must continue to work to advance smart development policies that establish Point Breeze as a neighborhood of choice for everyone.”

“There’s a couple hundred in South Philly,” Steve Cobb, Johnson’s director of legislation, explained. “To date, he’s transferred 150 properties and we’re transferring as the agencies are able to process them.”

The process requires a transfer of deeds from various previously established city agencies to the Land Bank, and it’s executed via legislation from councilpersons.

To be clear, most of the property getting transferred into the Land Bank are empty, vacant lots – not necessarily blighted or dangerous structures. In a big map of the 2nd District, Cobb confirmed the empty lots are primarily concentrated in a couple pockets of the district: Point Breeze and Grays Ferry. There’s nearly nothing south of Snyder Avenue or north of Washington Avenue. But between 25th and 31st streets, between Alter and Tasker streets, there’s quite a clustering.

Cobb noted there’s been far more interest in the South Philly properties than the district’s Southwest Philadelphia properties.

“The Councilman’s optimistic about the Land Bank. It has a planning apparatus, it can formulate a coherent plan for the lots in the city,” Cobb said.

According to the Central Philadelphia Development Corp. and Center City District, a report says “Point Breeze has experienced the steepest rise in rental rise of any Philadelphia neighborhood over the last two years.”

“We welcome new folks but we want to stay and make sure people have what’s needed in their communities,” WCRP executive director Nora Lichtash said through a statement. “We forget that our city is home to over 400,000 individuals living below the poverty line.” Over the phone, the mostly North Philly-situated community organizer told SPR “we don’t want anyone to feel bad about coming to our neighborhoods, but no one wants to be pushed out or kept out. There’s a welcoming spirit at our core – we don’t blame new residents, but we want to make sure that they know that people have been living and working and worshipping there for many years.”

In a spring ’16 report from the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities, from ’00 to ’12, South Philly’s “Change in Median Home Sale Price” has skyrocketed 184 percent, “Median Gross Rent” rose 18 percent, while “Median Household Income” went up four percent.

WCRP has completed 12 developments in Philadelphia in its 28 years – 250 units representing $65 million dollars of investment. But it’s worth mentioning their expertise lies in working with public entities to secure tax credit funding and affordable housing funding to get new brick and mortar developments built.

“We’re not new at this,” Lichtash said. “We’re taking the responsibility of raising the money and building the development and making sure we follow all the rules of our funders and financers.”

The project comes as a partnership with CATCH, which focuses primarily on housing veterans, homeless veterans, and individuals with special needs. The agreement that WCRP and CATCH have entered into guarantees CATCH clients one-third of the Mamie Nichols Townhomes.

“We’ve been on the ground in Point Breeze for a very long time,” CATCH president and CEO Raymond Pescatore said in a statement. “Even casual observers can see how fast things are changing. This project is about uniting new and old residents to create a healthy, diverse community for everyone, regardless of their income level. We’re also particularly excited about dedicating a portion for our veterans, who deserve a place to live after serving their country.”

The Land Bank will continue to work in concert with City Council staff and non-profits like Habitat For Humanity.

“What Cobb and Johnson have asked us to do is to try to pinpoint properties in [Point Breeze and Grays Ferry] that are now publicly owned and coming into title with the Land Bank to create developable sites,” Nicholas Scafidi, interim executive director of the Land Bank, noted. “The whole purpose of the Land Bank is to take vacant, blighted property and turn it into productive use and put it back on the tax roles and get rid of the blight. That’s the effort we’re undertaking throughout the city but very specifically in the second Councilmanic district.”

Cobb, Lichtash, and Scafidi stressed that market-rate housing is essential, as well, but that the Land Bank may have an especially strong capability to impact neighborhoods that need support.

“There are many, many people who are working class people with good-paying jobs who qualify for affordable housing. There’s no doubt that there are people in need of supportive housing services,” Scafidi, who was born on the 800 block of South Delhi Street, urged.

“There’s a variety of purposes for the Land Bank, some of which involve increased tax revenue and others are about the community,” Paul Chrystie, the Land Bank’s communications director, said.

The Land Bank isn’t entirely about affordability, it’s also about easing and smoothing the process of smart development that’s approved by a City agency. Cobb points to Carpenter Green, 17th and Carpenter streets, the Ralph Brooks Tot Lot, 20th and Tasker streets, and Habitat for Humanity’s builds on the 2300 block of Greenwich Street as success stories of pooled and transferred land to community-oriented projects.

“There’s great potential here,” Scafidi said. “One of the real beneficial efforts is developing assemblages, taking properties owned by all the various housing agencies and getting all those properties in one place. It’s one-stop-shopping: once [interested parties] have identified that they’re interested in properties, they can come to the Land Bank to process the sale or purchase.”

For many, the hope is that the Mamie Nichols townhomes are representative of the kinds of projects that will continue to come as a result of the Land Bank.

“We’re so excited about working in South Philly, and we really respect the people who work there, and we’re here as guests but people are really excited about the idea of truly affordable housing,” Lichtash said. “There’s a need for affordability and I think we’re doing it and showing that it can be done. I think we have a chance in Philly.”

Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at or ext. 117.