City urged to buy back $10 million in liens to protect community gardens and lots from sheriff’s sale

Peeking out between the rowhomes on Viola Street in East Parkside sits the verdant oasis Naomi Smith has called her therapy of 50 years.

Perched in the late spring sun between her hearty collard greens, budding broccoli, and just-flowering tomatoes, she dangled a plastic bag of fresh-picked vermillion strawberries.

“The secret is love,” Smith said. “You don’t come over here and just snatch them up. You’ve got to love them.”

The garden wasn’t always so loved — or a garden at all. Smith remembers hauling trash and rubble with her neighbors from the abandoned lot to create the Viola Street Garden a half century ago.

Now, at 86, she visits at least three times a week and sees the site as an example of how lots cared for by the surrounding community can flourish. The garden itself is safe from sheriff’s sale, but Smith and advocates worry the surrounding grassy plots of tax-delinquent land, tended to by neighbors, could be auctioned off or sit vacant — a fate they hope to prevent with a new initiative to urge the city to repurchase $10 million in liens on the properties community members have maintained.

Last year, Joyce Smith, vice president of the Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation, said she watched as a developer purchased five lots on the block for speculation, which she said sit empty.

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“And who takes care of them?” she said. “Residents. So this is what speculating can do in our communities. It creates environmental chaos, and it also creates hazardous conditions that we have to live with.”

The two spoke at a press conference this week outside the Viola Street Community Garden to champion a campaign by City Councilmember Kendra Brooks to urge the city to buy back $10 million in liens from a private lender who in 1997 purchased liens on thousands of parcels in a deal that the city controller later deemed a “worst-case scenario” for the city.

The campaign — dubbed “Restore Community Land” — has identified around 500 parcels being used as gardens and side yards at risk of sheriff’s sale, as well as 475 plots they say could be acquired for affordable housing.

The land is at-risk, advocates say, due to liens stemming from the 1997 attempt by the city to bundle 33,000 tax liens and sell them to US Bank, a private lienholder, in an effort to quickly raise funds for the cash-strapped school district.

The move unintentionally privatized the ownership of the abandoned, lien-encumbered lots, leaving them to be sold through sheriff’s sales and backroom deals.

The new campaign, backed by Brooks and Councilmembers Helen Gym and Jamie Gauthier, proposes that the city reacquire the properties from US Bank by paying the roughly $10 million in liens. Their plan suggests that the city then partner with stakeholders to advocate for parcels to be acquired by the Land Bank and establish pathways for community ownership of the land — mainly concentrated in poorer, Black, and Latino neighborhoods in North and West Philadelphia.

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The time is now to act, Brooks and other advocates said Monday, as sheriff’s sales of the parcels have increased since April 2021 and US Bank has stated plans to sell off the remaining plots by the end of 2023.

“After 25 years, we cannot continue to kick the can down the road,” Brooks said.

Brooks hopes the $10 million line item will be passed as part of the city’s finalized budget in June. The funding for the proposed buyback could come from multiple pathways, according to Brooks’ spokesperson, including money received through the American Rescue Plan Act, or dollars obtained through rising property assessment taxes.

A spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney said the administration has “had conversations over several years with US Bank on these liens and will continue to do so until we can resolve this issue.”

“At the same time,” the spokesperson said, “the city has limited resources and dedicating $10 million to this would impact our ability to fund other priority projects, and it would need to be considered within the frame of the rest of our budget process.”

Advocates say the green space, gardens, and yards reduce blight and can have positive impacts on rates of gun violence, crime, mental health, and quality of life. They’ve long encouraged the city to regain control over the sale of parcels to little avail, but now may see the benefit of increased Council support.

On Tuesday, Brooks sent a letter — co-signed by 12 other Council members — to US Bank, asking the private corporation to pause sheriff sales of the parcels and begin negotiations with the city.

“In the 25 years that have passed since [the sale of the liens], thousands of these parcels remained in limbo, abandoned by both the City and US Bank,” the letter reads. “This lack of action has carried significant costs, from the taxpayer expense of maintenance and code enforcement efforts to the fostering of crime and depression of neighboring property values.”

The removal of the liens would be a first step to cutting some — but not all — red tape for community members looking to own the land they care for, said Andria Bibiloni, an attorney with Philadelphia Legal Assistance.

Bibiloni said residents looking to avoid a sheriff’s sale of lien-encumbered side yards and lots often face debt payments to both US Bank and the city land bank, with sums that can “range anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to tens of thousands.”

Eradicating the US Bank debt would clear some of the hurdles, she said, calling the move “a matter of race and wealth equity — and it is critical to preventing the displacement of our communities in the face of gentrification.”

In Viola Community Garden Monday, Brooks paused while admiring Smith’s collard greens. “There were so many hoops and hurdles to even get to this point,” she said. “And they’re still there.”