City Council Considers Conservatorship Amendment


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      by Amy Laura Cahn, Esq. | 03/04/2014

      The current conservatorship law allows nonprofit organizations, neighbors and developers to request approval from the court to manage an abandoned plot of land. Unfortunately, this pathway to land access is fraught with legal intracicies, does not address accumulated debt and does not necessarily provide long-term access or permanence. Amy Laura Cahn, director of the Law Center’s Garden Justice Legal Initiative, shared these concerns with City Council today in her testimony on a proposed amendment to the conservatorship law.

      City Council Committee on Public Health and Human Services
      Hearing on the Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act of Pennsylvania

      March 4, 2014
      Testimony of the Amy Laura Cahn, Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia
      Resolution No. 140025

      I want to start by thanking Chairwoman Tasco for introducing the resolution and all members of the Committee for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Amy Laura Cahn and I am testifying in my capacity as a staff attorney with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.

      For over forty years, the Law Center has been dedicated to ensuring that vulnerable populations have the vital resources all of us need to live productive, fulfilling lives: including a home, a safe and healthy neighborhood, and access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food. Thus, through our Garden Justice Legal Initiative, I provide pro bono legal and policy support to Philadelphia’s gardens and farms.

      This city has, for years, tacitly accepted gardening and farming as a core strategy in revitalizing and repurposing vacant parcels. Yet, community groups have no clear path to legal access, much less permanence, even when garden spaces have become undeniably sewn into the fabric of a community.

      Our biggest set of land transfer quagmires are the privately owned parcels – tax delinquent and abandoned. I have two stories for you: the first, in which conservatorship would have made the difference and the second, in which we hope it will.

      My first client at the Law Center was a Grays Ferry institution, Central Club for Boys and Girls. Incorporated in 1947, the group began cleaning, greening, gardening, and stewarding vacant lots back in the 1930s. These lots were the sites of demolished homes some of which last changed hands as long ago as 1911. There have been no owners in evidence for many decades. The organization revitalized these spaces, teaching youth gardening and other skills, for over seventy years. In 2005, certain parcels started coming up for sheriff’s sale, purchased by speculators who have taken no action since that time. Eager to keep community spaces in the community, the organization obtained title to some of the remaining parcels through a lengthy quiet title process. However, when it gained title, Central Club was saddled with someone else’s tax burden, putting it at risk of losing the properties, which is when the Law Center became involved.

      About a year and a half ago, I was contacted by a community development corporation in Kensington about two parcels on Ann Street. A church group had begun gardening on them, primarily to combat drug activity. The church and the families involved wanted an opportunity to legalize and make permanent this solution. The problem, which is a familiar story, is that the two parcels are owned by an LLC that is unreachable and has no obvious intent to take responsibility — with twenty thousand dollars worth of tax and municipal liens between the two lots and no market for development in the neighborhood.

      There is no timely or affordable mechanism to put these parcels in the hands of these community groups. Sheriff’s sales are not always the best option, when the debt is so significant, proportional to the market value. Further, sheriff’s sale pits community-based groups against speculators who purchase land, only to leave it abandoned and neglected, once again. Conservatorship actions combat these scenarios because they require the implementation of a court-monitored plan. That plan and the court’s involvement serve as an accountability mechanism for any type of petitioner – community group, for profit developer, or individual.

      Conservatorship would have made all the difference for Central Club to take action and continue their important work. On Ann Street, with the support of the CDC and the Department of Licensing and Inspections, the church group is poised to pursue a conservatorship action when the time is right.

      Yet, my clients do face barriers to utilizing this tool.

      • First, we are waiting to see the act amended to include vacant lots “on which a building has been demolished.” That amendment will open up another set of opportunities to put conservatorship to work.
      • Second, as the best practices manual created by Regional Housing Legal Services makes clear, there is more guidance needed about the process for public and private sales of properties at the end of the conservatorship, including sales to the conservator or petitioner.
      • Third, we need a mechanism to clear the debt where appropriate. Even a garden or green space takes capital investment, for example, to take proper precautions to remediate lead dust or other environmental contaminants. We should provide incentives for potential conservators not just to take action, but to be fully resourced when they do.
      • Finally, as a public health issue, Philadelphia’s brownfields are some the abandoned spaces most in need of attention, resources, and a plan. Conservatorship could provide the structure to remediate and repurpose brownfields, but organizations and developers will appropriately shy away from these spaces, without support. We need a policy and programmatic framework in which to support petitioners who want to take that step.

      I appreciate the efforts of City Council to take leadership on these issues. Many thanks for the opportunity to speak today.

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