Urban Farmers Look To Land Bank For Help Holding On To Property

January 30, 2015 | by Nicolas Esposito


When lawyer Amy Laura Cahn joined the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia in 2011, she took over for her predecessor who was in the midst of combating poor air quality issues in the Hunting Park neighborhood. Though most of the factories in and around Hunting Park have been shuttered in the past few decades, the neighborhood continued to contend with air pollution that affected the health and quality of life for local residents. A group called The Hunting Park Stakeholders had identified unused vacant land as both a problem and a solution to air pollution in the neighborhood. With the help of PILCOP, the group secured an EPA Environmental Justice Small Grant to transform parcels of that vacant land into food producing and environmentally restorative garden space.

Using gardens to combat air pollution seemed intuitive. But when the group began searching for a vacant lot to repurpose as a garden, it was not so easy. In some instances of prospective lots, they could not even find the people who owned the land. After nine months of searching, the group finally convinced an owner of a corner store to allow them to use the adjacent vacant lot used then as a dumping ground.


A sea of kale rises from the ground at Farm 51 in West Philly | Photo: Neal Santos

This arduous process for a natural solution to vacant land use, environmental improvements, and public health concerns seemed both counter-intuitive and unjust to Cahn. She began approaching other urban gardeners in Philadelphia to see if there was a role for lawyers to help with land access. Cahn met people in their gardens, in neighborhood coffee shops, and in their kitchens (mine was one of those kitchens). Over dozens of these meetings, she discovered that for decades urban gardeners in Philly had grappled with this long-standing problem–land can be taken away after only a year of cultivation, hardly enough time to transform dead soil into fertile, productive ground.

With the Philadelphia Land Bank, officially in operation since the start of this month, advocates like Cahn are hopeful that securing space for urban farming will become easier and that farms and gardens will finally be afforded legal protection. These gains, however, are not certain. “I think there’s a responsibility on all of us—City agencies and advocates–to ensure that residents understand how to get legal access to land,” said Cahn. “We need to make sure that new urban farmers and the ones who’ve been doing it since the 1960s have the same access to information and opportunities for land as others in the city.” For Cahn, the process–despite the city’s long history of horticulture—has been fraught, although the benefits of urban farming and gardening are widely enough recognized.

Test Case In Grays Ferry

In 2010, Cahn applied for and received a Skadden Fellowship through PILCOP to provide legal, policy, organizing, and education support for community gardeners and market farmers. Her first client was the Central Club for Boys & Girls in Grays Ferry. The Central Club was founded in 1928 by Ms. Mabel Wilson to provide boy scouts, girl scouts, and 4H students gardening opportunities in their city environment. Wilson founded her gardens on vacant land in neighborhood during 1930s and 40s–a product of factory shut-downs during the Great Depression. The organization became a registered non-profit in 1947 and even received funding from the City of Philadelphia for youth programming.

As Cahn would come to find out, the tax delinquent owners of the land had paid no taxes since at least 1978, which is as far back as records go. In 2005, the City began to auction the Central Club’s garden properties. Fearful they would lose the land, in 2010 Central Club officials acquired the title to the eight lots they used as gardens through a legal maneuver called adverse possession–by law they could gain title because the organization had controlled the land and enriched the neighborhood for more than 21 years. Although adverse possession is a valuable mechanism for legally acknowledging entities that steward land, one of the drawbacks is that the entity then takes on the tax burden if the property is delinquent. Though a non-profit and exempt from real estate tax, Central Club was now on the hook for years of unpaid taxes.


Philadelphia Horticultural Society has begun a new project on the Grays Ferry side of 25th and Dickinson Streets | Photo: Michael Bixler

It was not made clear to Central Club that they had taken on this tax burden when gaining title to the land. In 2011, after stewarding the land for over half a century, and serving hundreds, if not thousands, of young boys and girls, the Central Club’s properties were forced again into sheriff sale for the unpaid tax burden that they had inherited. Cahn filed a petition to postpone sale arguing that had the organization been awarded title in 1947, as a non-profit they wouldn’t have owed any taxes. The Board of Revision and Taxes, which oversaw the case, agreed and absolved all taxes.

Cahn was understandably pleased with the outcome, but her joy was short lived: many other urban gardening programs, using both private and public land, were threatened by murky land control laws. Those using public land had to face a complicated network of governing agencies: Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation, Philadelphia Housing Authority, Office of Housing and Community Development, Public Property, and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. Collectively, these agencies own over 10,000 vacant lots and properties, with a majority of these properties in tax delinquency.

Gardening as a Public Response to Vacant Land

This need for policy around gardening and land use dates back to the city’s founding. William Penn’s original design for the city integrated space for gardening into large house parcels that he thought would also limit the spread of disease and fire. Almost 300 years later, Philadelphians continued advocating for green space to be integrated into the plans for the city.

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Alta Felton’s Greene Towne Countrie garden at 25th and Dickinson in Point Breeze, 1989 | Photo: Philadelphia Horticultural Society

A prominent example is the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s late 1970s Green Country Towne Initiative. According to PHS garden educator Sally McCabe, the former PHS Vice President Blaine Bonham dreamed up the program. The idea was to take a targeted neighborhood and saturate it with greening projects for three years. Along with improved green spaces, the other aim was that the renewed energy would inspire community members to begin organizing around these initiatives. The ultimate goal was to motivate City officials to fix other structural problems in the neighborhood.

The program started in 1978 in the West Hagert neighborhood of Kensington with funding from the William Penn Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trust. Every three years the program shifted to another neighborhood: Point Breeze, West Shore, Susquehanna, Strawberry Mansion, and Norris Square.

McCabe says that the Point Breeze project, which began in the early 1980s, was one of the most successful. “Point Breeze has always been a gardening and farming neighborhood,” she said. In addition to the many African Americans who brought immense agrarian knowledge from the South, the neighborhood was also the original home of Landreth Seeds, which is one of the oldest seed companies in America. The company, now located in New Freedom, Pennsylvania, was originally based on Federal Street.


Ernel Martinez’s Aspire: No Limits mural keeps the Concert Garden at 21st and Ellsworth Streets sunny year round | Photo: Michael Bixler

Local resident Mamie Nichols campaigned for Point Breeze to become part of the program and after three years, neighbors had converted thirty vacant lots into vegetable and sitting gardens. Thirty-five blocks were transformed into “garden blocks,” where each resident received window boxes and sidewalk containers; 17 blocks were heavily planted with street trees. PHS supplied the resources and training, but the Point Breeze Beautification Committee managed each planting. One standout was the Concert Garden at 21st and Ellsworth Streets–still used for neighborhood gatherings and a music series on the beautifully landscaped stage. A large community garden at 25th and Tasker is also still in use. However, Alta Felton’s huge garden that spanned from Reed to Dickinson on 25th no longer exists. When a few Green Country Towne Gardens were lost, PHS officials formed the Neighborhood Garden Association–now the Neighborhood Garden Trust. This offshoot of PHS has secured long term leases for dozens of gardens like the Concert Garden in Point Breeze.

Legal Challenges and Responses

As Cahn began was making inroads into the issue of gardening, stewardship, and land ownership in 2011, City officials were also trying to come up with a disposition policy that would take into account the value of gardeners’ land stewardship, while balancing needs for tax relief and tax revenue. Through the website “Philly Land Works,” all 10,000 vacant properties controlled by the four main land holding public agencies were consolidated into one centralized system where any resident, developer, or community person could make an “Expression of Interest” to either legally acquire or legally gain access to the land without going through sheriff sale or taking any possible tax burdens.

When Cahn and members of Mayor Michael Nutter’s Food Policy Advisory Council became aware of the City’s plans, they wondered why they weren’t consulted on the new policy. They were told that urban gardening wasn’t a “constituency.” This explanation didn’t satisfy Cahn, so she began working with the FPAC, the Philadelphia Urban Farming Network, and the now defunct Food Organizing Collaborative.

Cahn, Johanna Rosen, co-founder of Mill Creek Farm, and other FORC members solicited 100 people’s comments and delivered them to John Carpenter, the deputy executive director of the PRA. The two main requests centered on the development of pathways to permanence for existing gardens and opportunities to incubate new gardens. Under the current urban gardening agreement, gardens are issued a revocable one-year license–an absurdly untenable stipulation for food production, which requires years for cultivation. The FPAC also made specific policy requests, some of which were incorporated into existing policies, but have been difficult to implement.

While urban gardening and farming was officially acknowledged by the City Planning Commission in the revamping of the zoning code in 2012, the next year City Councilman Brian O’Neill introduced amendments to the code that made certain activities in CMX-2 zones–commercial mixed use and retail areas–either not allowed, or in need of a special exemption. Two of those activities were community gardens and market farms.


The dormant days of winter settle into this community garden at 25th and Tasker Streets | Photo: Michael Bixler

The proposed restrictions on urban gardening spurred advocates. “The beauty is that what O’Neill was trying to do actually allowed us to band together even tighter as an urban gardening constituency to counteract this,” said Cahn. Advocates formed the campaign for Healthy Food Green Spaces, which worked hard to lobby for O’Neill to drop urban gardening from his amendments. “If O’Neill’s amendment went through, it would have made 20 percent of Philly’s gardens illegal. [The farming activities] at Wyck and Grumblethorpe could have been illegal which would be crazy given the history,” said Cahn. After a few tense weeks, O’Neill dropped the amendment and urban gardening and market farming’s places in the zoning code were secured.

It appeared, at least for the time being, that the rich tradition of urban gardening, as well as the modern constituency that coalesced around the zoning and land use issues, seemed to be enough of a force to permanently weave gardening into the institutional fabric of the city. Working with the NGT, the FPAC, the PRA and the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation, Cahn and the urban gardening constituency created a coalition called Healthy Food, Green Spaces that had a prominent role in the crafting of Land Bank legislation that was introduced by Councilwoman Maria Quiňones Sanchez and former Councilman Bill Green in 2013. Cahn and the collective of advocates in the constituency were instrumental in proposing improvements to the Land Bank Strategic Plan to lobby for five-year leases for community gardens and longer termed leases for market farms. Cahn and the FPAC have also worked with the Farm Philly program of PPR, which one day aims to serve as the main facilitator of creating opportunities to make available City owned property from Philly Land Works for community garden and market farm use.

In 2010, the consulting firm Econsult was hired by the PRA to conduct a land use and policy study on urban farming. Lee Huang, a partner at Econsult, confirmed the report’s findings when he told Hidden City that the City should allow for some permanent agricultural space. Huang said he believes gardening on vacant land parcels should continue until development pressure increases, but that farmers should have a way to collect some of the upside land value when the land is developed.

Although certain parts of the Econsult study support the notion that urban agriculture does play a role in increased land value, it strongly contradicts the claims by gardening advocates that temporary gardening agreements do not benefit urban growers. But the Econsult also study gives credence to claims by researchers and advocates that urban agriculture can stabilize distressed neighborhoods, address inequities in fresh food access, combat childhood obesity, provide clean air, manage storm water run-off, and mitigate against urban heat islands. “Producing food locally may reduce ‘food miles traveled,’ result in higher-quality food, and better connect food producers with food consumers,” said the Econsult report. Finally, urban farms may be “useful contributors to a city’s economic development efforts by encouraging local entrepreneurship, creating jobs, and stimulating local commerce.”

Current PRA leadership–as well as the other land holding agencies–appears interested in exploring longer-term leases and pathways to permanence for urban agriculture projects. The Econsult report backs up this approach while noting that the City will need to balance general neighborhood “quality-of-life” gains that urban agriculture provides with increased tax revenue through commercial and residential development.


Neal Santos and Andrew Olson started Farm 51 inside the two vacant lots next to their West Philly home | Photo: Neal Santos

Two urban farmers who have benefited from Cahn’s work are Neal Santos and Andrew Olson of Farm 51 in West Philadelphia. In 2008, Olson and Santos established Farm 51 on two vacant lots next to an apartment they were renting at 5101 Chester Avenue in West Philadelphia. As Olson explains, “There didn’t seem to be any long term situation that we could figure, but we did it anyway. It snowballed quickly from a personal homestead situation into what became much more community based. Into year three, I did think often how heartbreaking it would be to lose the garden.” Wanting to make their lives and farm permanent in the neighborhood, they saw their opportunity in 2011 when a single family home at 5107 Chester Avenue went up for sale. As Olson described it, “I think my heart and mind raced for hours after seeing the listing. I felt sick and we had to figure out how to make it happen.”

Santos and Olson were able to purchase the property and stake their ownership of not just the house, but part of the Farm 51 as well. Since the adjacent lot next to the house at 5105 Chester Avenue was publicly owned, they were able to acquire the property as a side lot. In 2014, they came home to discover a sheriff’s sale notice on the fence of 5103 Chester Avenue, the last remaining property of Farm 51 that was not in their control. Luckily for them, they happened to see Cahn riding by on her bike. Both were familiar with her work in the city and recruited Cahn on the spot to take on their case. She immediately filed a petition to stop the sale and the three have been in talks with Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell’s office to preserve the land as garden space. “We still don’t know what will happen but we’re very hopeful,” says Olson.

Although the Land Bank is now fully operational, it will take some time before the entire inventory of public land is placed in its control. If gardeners are inclined to use vacant land to build a farm or community garden, it continues to be the default to get an urban gardening agreement with the revoke clause. Cahn says that the Land Bank provides better structure to implement policies as well as opportunities for purchasing options, renewals, and longer leases at nominal prices for both for-profit and non-profit farming. Also incorporated into the legislation is a mechanism for putting private, delinquent land into the Land Bank. All this can be found in the Land Bank strategic plan that was given a favorable recommendation by a City Council Committee at a hearing on Dec. 1st, and will go before the entire Council early this year.


Special thanks to Neal Santos of Farm 51.
See more of Neal’s photography HERE.


About the Author

Nicolas Esposito Nic Esposito is an urban farmer, novelist and founder of The Head and the Hand Press. He lives on his urban homestead in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Nic's new book Kensington Homestead was released by The Head & The Hand Press in November 2014.

One Comment:

  1. Astralmilkman says:

    Great article , I gives me hope for more urban farms in Philly

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