Philadelphia Land Bank’s New Director Seeks Transparency and Efficiency

Ángel Rodríguez does not boast of having big dreams or increasing his goals. Hired as the first person to serve as the full-time CEO of the Philadelphia Land Bank, he really just wants the agency to do well.

“The Land Bank, if you see it as a startup, we understand our goal. We understand what we are supposed to do, ”says Rodríguez, who started his new job in September. “The problem is operations. Do we have systems? Are we doing it in an effective and efficient way, as well as transparent and standard? “

After months of searching for a CEO, the PlanPhilly news site reports that the response to Rodriguez has been enthusiastic. Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez, who sponsored the Philadelphia land bank bill, said it was a particularly difficult hiring.

“People who know how to do this kind of development work are in the non-profit sector or they make a lot of money in the development sector,” Quiñones-Sánchez told PlanPhilly. “And this is in a complicated bureaucracy. You have to want to come in and really want to serve. “

Among the experts on vacant properties, earth banks they are promoted as a means to untangle the legal knots that make it difficult to sell vacant parcels in arrears with taxes. Land banking dates back to the early 1970s and has become increasingly popular in the Midwest and upstate New York, but Philadelphia is the largest city in the United States to have a banking program. this type.

Rodríguez sees a contrast between his agency and that of a small or medium-sized inherited city. While recent job growth in Philadelphia outpaced New York, and there has been steady population growth, the city remains the poorest of the major cities in the United States. Limited about 43,000 vacant lots.

The land bank was created in late 2013 and the first properties were added to its books in December 2015. According to the city, the land bank now has around 2,000 properties. As reported by PlanPhilly, Confusions in transfers and tense debates over strategy have fueled concerns that land banking in Philadelphia might not be the magic bullet it should be. Rodríguez says eliminating miscommunication is definitely a “priority.”

“We have to be that agency that is really doing the checks and balances and screening the sheriff’s sales to make sure the identified properties don’t go up for auction,” he says. “Also, make sure this agency knows all of our critical strategic partners in the community. It’s not just our elected officials, but also local nonprofits and civic agencies. “

Rodríguez comes to the post from the Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM), a Hispanic-led nonprofit organization, where he was vice president of community and economic development. Prior to his appointment, Rodríguez served on the board of the land bank. At APM and as an instructor at the Corzo Center, which supports Philadelphia artists who want to start businesses, Rodríguez used to help aspiring entrepreneurs. As Next City reportedIn 2015, APM won a $ 20,000 grant to convert vacant lots into an emerging neighborhood market and offer merchants an entrepreneurial boot camp. Rodríguez directed that project.

You are already reviewing resumes. “We are short of three employees, so I have really been working on the staff to bring it into the land bank,” he says.

Currently, the land bank has 10 full-time employees. In addition to Rodríguez, the team includes a senior attorney, two inspectors, and six professionals who focus on land acquisition. The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority has loaned three other employees to the agency, each working on land acquisition.

The land bank has a five-year goal of reactivating approximately 2,000 properties. So far, according to the city, the number of properties sold through the program is 196 and the majority were vacant lots. Any simplification Rodriguez makes will have to cover the domain of the agency’s elaborate procurement policies. As outlined in the strategic plan, released in February, the criteria for determining whether the land bank can transfer certain parcels depends on the planned reuse. The reuse category also determines the approval process and which city offices and organizations should be involved.

The ability to be strategic is key, says Frank Alexander, co-founder of the Center for Community Progress, a national nonprofit that focuses on vacant properties. While Philadelphia’s five-year targets forecast the land bank to add 7,727 publicly owned parcels to its properties, it will also acquire another 1,650 properties in arrears. The agency has also outlined a combination of property types for its disposition process. Sixty-five percent of the land returned for active use will be for housing, and in an effort to ensure affordability, only 25 percent of that will not be restricted by income brackets.

Alexander, a pioneering expert in land banking, noted that a team needs to be thoughtful about what it needs, whether it be transferring land that is ready for transfer immediately or having specialists who know how to eliminate title flaws or construction experts. who can offer advice. in homes that need rehabilitation.

“The biggest mistake a land bank can make … is taking a large amount of land when it doesn’t know what to do with it,” says Alexander. “I don’t recommend that any land bank create staff and then find out what to do with those staff. A land bank must develop operational capacity according to the inventory it is contributing. “

In the days after his start on September 11, Rodriguez wasn’t just considering candidates for the job. He was also meeting with officials from the countless city departments involved in the land bank’s land transfer processes.

“I feel like I’ve been here two weeks,” he said. “I realized last night that it had only been three days.”

Cassie Owens is a regular contributor to Next City. His writing has also appeared in, Role of the City of Philadelphia and other publications.

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