Conservatorship of Vacant Properties

A guide to conservatorship of vacant properties in Philadelphia


Conservatorship is a helpful tool to obtain the rights to manage a property in order to return it to productive use and into compliance with code. It means that a guardian or protector–such as a community garden organization–is appointed by a court as an official caretaker for a piece of vacant land owned by someone else. Both the land and the organization (or person) must meet specific criteria in order to qualify for conservatorship.

 Take a look at this story from Grid magazine about a successful use of conservatorship by Urban Tree Connection.

Conservatorship, while potentially faster than other mechanisms to gain legal access to land, can be a tricky legal process and requires preparation. For more comprehensive guidelines on the existing conservatorship law, take a look at this manual by the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania.

What Kind of Property is Eligible for Conservatorship?
  • In order for a property to be eligible for conservatorship, the property has to be unoccupied, abandoned by its owner, and in an unsafe and unhealthy condition
  • Residential, commercial, or industrial buildings or structures and its surrounding land
  • Vacant lots on which a building has been demolished
  • Adjacent properties may also be included in one petition if those properties are owned by the same person and if the properties were used for the same or related purposes
Who can File a Petition to Establish a Conservatorship?
  • The owner of the property
  • A resident or business owner within 2,000 feet of the property
  • A nonprofit organization that operates in the city and has participated in a project within a five-mile radius of the property
  • A lien holder or other secured creditor of the owner
  • A municipality or school district in which the property is located
What do I have to do to Establish a Conservatorship?
As a part of the petition to the court to establish a conservatorship of a particular property you must prepare:

  • A statement that the property meets conditions listed above
  • If possible, but not required:
    • A statement that the owner is in violation of municipal code or that the property is a public nuisance
    • A recommendation for who should be conservator of the property (whether it be an individual or nonprofit corporation)
    • A preliminary plan with estimated costs for how you are going to bring the property back into compliance with municipal code, as well as sources of funding you plan to use
    • A listing of the mortgages, liens, and other debt on the property

Once the petition has been filed, a hearing will be scheduled for the court to assess the feasibility of the plan and the proposed financing of that plan.

What Powers and Responsibilities Do the Conservator Have?

If assigned as a conservator, you can (and must):

  • Develop a plan to get rid of the code violations on the property
  • Operate, manage, and improve the property in order to bring it in compliance with all municipal code requirements
  • Find funding sources to finance the implementation of that plan
  • Contract for the repair and maintenance of the property
  • File a lien against the property to cover the costs of the conservatorship such as the costs of rehabilitating the property, attorneys fees, and court costs

If you believe that you may be able to secure legal access to your land through conservatorship, please contact the Garden Justice Legal Initiative

This document is meant to be a living document of resources and recommendations for those growing food for themselves, their neighbors or others. If you would like to add a resource to this page, or if you see something on this page that appears to be inaccurate, please contact Jonathan McJunkin.

More resources for securing access or ownership of land for your garden or farm

How to Obtain Land Through Adverse Possession

Gaining land ownership through adverse possession in Philadelphia requires a 21 year statutory period before you can obtain the title to the land or property.

Philadelphia Stormwater Charge: Community Garden Discount

Here’s how you can get a discount on your Philadelphia stormwater bill for your community garden.

About Neighborhood Gardens Trust

The Neighborhood Gardens Trust is a crucial resource for the preservation of gardens and community green space, providing a trust for public land in Philadelphia.

Gardening Without Ownership

You don’t need to own vacant land to establish a community garden or green space in Philadelphia, but gardening without ownership comes with risks. Find out how to get started.

Licenses, Permits, and Regulations

If you plan to sell food produced in your farm or garden–especially prepared foods–you should be aware of Philadelphia laws about food safety & preparation.

Water For Your Garden

There are several options in Philadelphia for providing water to gardens and urban farms.

Liens and Debt

Unpaid debt from a previous owner can stand in the way of using a vacant lot for a community space–here’s how to find out if a vacant lot has debt, and what to do.

Employment and Labor Law

If you are looking to hire workers or have volunteers in your community garden or urban farm, you need to comply with state and local labor laws.