After 25 years of being in limbo, a new plan put forth by City Council, community advocates, and local gardeners seeks to save land at risk of being sold at sheriff sale
Philadelphia — Yesterday, Councilmember Kendra Brooks (At Large), in partnership with community groups and legal experts, launched “Restore Community Land,” a campaign to recover hundreds of beloved community gardens, yards, and green spaces encumbered by U.S. Bank liens and on the cusp of being irrevocably lost. Supporters gathered in Viola Street Garden in East Parkside, one of the many public community gardens across the city that is at risk of being sold at sheriff sale, to rally behind the new push to recover these lots and restore community ownership of land.
East Parkside, like many other working class neighborhoods in West, North, and Northwest Philadelphia, where the highest concentration of these lots are located, is already struggling with high rates of gun violence, predatory development, a shortage of affordable housing, and the deleterious impacts of the climate crisis. Among flowers in bloom, trees bearing fruit, and garden beds overflowing with fresh produce, gardeners, neighborhood elders, legal experts, and elected officials emphasized the urgent need to protect these vibrant, well-maintained spaces and ensure a path toward community land ownership.
“The Restore Community Land campaign is an effort to right the wrongs of our City’s past treatment of Black and Brown communities and forge a path toward land sovereignty.” said Councilmember Kendra Brooks. “As a trained restorative justice practitioner, I believe it is the City’s responsibility to address the harm that it caused when it sold off thousands of properties and left it to the community to pick up the pieces when the properties sat empty for years. After decades of unpaid land stewardship and thoughtful maintenance, these residents deserve a say in what happens to these lots. This campaign is about returning power back to working families that have expended labor, sweat, and effort to better their community. It’s about healing the wounds of disinvestment and neglect and creating communities of care where people can live, grow, and thrive.”
The Restore Community Land campaign, forged by Councilmember Kendra Brooks in partnership with Iglesias Gardens, Neighborhood Gardens Trust, Philadelphia Legal Assistance, Public Interest Law Center, Soil Generation, as well as Councilmembers Jamie Gauthier and Helen Gym, has identified approximately 500 at-risk parcels that are actively being used as gardens and side yards, and approximately 475 parcels that could be acquired for affordable housing assemblage. It proposes that the City reacquire these lots, and then partner with District Councilmembers, community stakeholders, and the Administration to prioritize parcels to be acquired by the Land Bank and establish clear pathways for community ownership of land.
“Gentrification is a citywide problem and land insecurity is so common that the Iglesias Garden has been able to connect with individuals and groups across the entire city who are faced with some sort of land struggle,” said Michelle Gueco, an organizer with Iglesias Garden. “People have, for years, used their time, labor, and resources to create safe spaces for their family and their community. At Iglesias Gardens, we realized that our community members were all facing similar challenges, whether it was U.S. Bank liens, sheriff sale, or the Land Bank. So we canvassed and connected with everyone at risk of losing land and gathered data, creating a network of gardeners and neighbors that work together toward community control of land. We’re asking the City to fix these problems. And we’re asking elected officials to learn from the example of Iglesias Gardens and neighbors from all across the city before it’s too late and this land is lost to developers who place profit over people.”
The dire situation that hundreds of community gardens, side yards, and green spaces find themselves in results from a decision made by the City in 1997, when, in a failed effort to raise money for the School District, they bundled together 30,000 properties and sold them to U.S. Bank, a private corporation. For years the properties sat vacant and neglected, until residents took matters into their own hands and transformed these lots into urban farms, community hubs, and attractive side yards. Twenty five years later, hundreds of these lots remain encumbered by U.S. Bank liens, existing in a kind of limbo.
“US Bank liens pose the single biggest threat to the future of nearly one hundred land parcels at thriving, food producing community gardens across Philadelphia,” said Jenney Greenberg, Executive Director of Neighborhood Gardens Trust. “It’s invaluable to have the leadership of Councilmember Brooks, Gauthier, Gym and other councilmembers working to stop the loss of community land at sheriff sale and budget funds to acquire US Bank liens. This is a key moment for the city to take back control of abandoned land and to support community-oriented land uses that provide access to green space and healthy food, climate resiliency, public safety, and affordable housing.”
The remaining properties that have US Bank liens are heavily concentrated in Council Districts 3, 7, and 8, clustered primarily in low-income Black and Latinx neighborhoods already beset by predatory development, rising housing costs, and gentrification. These neighborhoods, which have been faced with generations of disinvestment, displacement, and racist housing practices are no stranger to having land taken over by outside interests without any consideration being given to the community. Advocates see protecting these land parcels as not just a question of who can lay claim to a given lot, but a matter of racial, economic, and environmental justice.
“I am proud to stand with Councilmember Brooks to keep community lots in the hands of the neighbors who’ve nurtured them for decades,” said Councilmember Jamie Gauthier (3rd District). “The failures of this lien deal between the City and US Bank are continually present in our black and brown neighborhoods, and it is community members themselves who have taken up the mantle to fight back against this disinvestment when other institutions abandoned them. We cannot afford to allow Sheriff’s sales to continue to dispose of properties that can become neighborhood assets that improve public safety, during Philadelphia’s worsening gun violence epidemic.”
Research and lived experiences demonstrate that gardens and green space improve the overall health and well-being of neighborhoods while simultaneously helping to mitigate impacts of climate change. According to a 2018 University of Pennsylvania randomized control study, when lots in low-income neighborhoods are cleaned and well-maintained, the blocks nearby see about a 29% drop in incidents of gun violence.
“Community control of land is the foundation of our collective struggle toward liberation,” said Sonia Galiber, organizer with Soil Generation. “Whether the issue is food, education or housing, community control of resources requires community control of the land. Urban agriculture is not just a hobby. Rather, it is the foundation of food; community and cultural sovereignty; and resilience and resistance by historically underinvested communities of color.”
“Community gardens serve a vital purpose in Philadelphia by providing green space for growing, serving as a community hub, and helping to beautify neighborhoods,” said Justin Trezza, Director of Garden Programs, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. “The gardens support physical health through their bounty and mental health by being a green respite. We hope that others throughout the City of Philadelphia will rally to support the preservation of these vibrant spaces.”
The proposal puts forth a $10 million line item in the FY23 budget as one viable way to permanently recover the land parcels that they have identified as high priority. It also includes opening negotiations with U.S. Bank by requesting that they immediately pause all sheriff’s sales of lien-encumbered parcels in Philadelphia and begin an earnest discussion with City leaders about how to work together to permanently preserve these vital community assets.
“The research is clear: greening and cleaning communities leads to an immediate reduction in violent crime and gun assaults,” said Councilmember Helen Gym (At-Large). “To foster true public safety for every neighborhood, our work must be comprehensive and prioritize spaces like these, which build community and offer opportunities to young people. I am grateful to Councilmember Brooks for her leadership on this matter of racial and environmental justice.”
While sheriff sales were paused for most of the pandemic, they resumed in April 2021, after which U.S. Bank began aggressively selling off the remaining properties. As communities lose hundreds of beloved gardens, side lots, and potential sites for affordable housing development, it stands to lose hundreds more if the City does not act, as U.S. Bank has stated that they plan to sell all remaining lots by 2023. The Restore Community Land proposal resolves to obtain firm commitments from City Council, the Administration, and U.S. Bank that it will no longer allow these invaluable neighborhood spaces to be sacrificed at the expense of the community.