What's in a Vacant Lot?

Data Dashboard and Development Risk Assessment for Vacant Lots in Philadelphia

A project from the Weitzman School of Design Smart Cities Practicum
in collaboration with Philadelphia Legal Assistance

What's in a Vacant Lot?

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How does this happen?

The Life Cycle of a Vacant Property

When an owner abandons a property and stops paying taxes, the City of Philadelphia can initiate a foreclosure to sell the property through a public auction known as a sheriff sale.

Properties Life Cycle
Typically, my clients have been searching for guidance on how to pay the outstanding taxes on their home-adjacent yards and clarify the title to their properties for years without any luck. In many cases, title to the property and OPA accounts are in the names of long-gone or deceased persons [...] so they never receive notice of legal actions on the property. This means properties are regularly sold without any notice to those who have cared for these spaces for years.
Andria Bibiloni, Philadelphia Legal Assistance

What's behind this?

Increased activity in the Philadelphia real estate market in the past decade is likely a major driver of the rising interest in vacant land. To visualize this growth, we can look to where developers are filing zoning permit applications. Because real estate developers will often apply for zoning permits early in the planning and financing stage, these applications can serve as a leading indicator of future development.

Properties Life Cycle

Development Activity

A visualization of zoning permit applications over the last 15 years demonstrates how interest in the Philadelphia real estate market has intensified. As development interest has increased, so too has the value of vacant land, making parcels that previously may have been overlooked by the market more viable for new development. Tax foreclosures and sheriff sales are thus a natural response to this increased interest and can help to restore vacant and underused land to productive use—that is, for properties which are not already being used by the surrounding community.

Zoning Permits by Quarter
This is a massive wave of new construction. Much bigger than we’ve even seen before. This surge is indicative of developers being very bullish. Otherwise they wouldn't have bothered filling for all those permits.
Kevin Gillen, Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation

Who is impacted?

What can be done?

This could have been another pile of trash or a housing complex that no one in the community could pay for. [...] Instead, it’s a place where the grassroots, the 99%, can come together, enjoy without fears of judgment, and create the future they want for their kids.
César Viveros, Kensington resident and muralist

Philadelphia Legal Assistance

A variety of grassroots and legal advocacy organizations such as Philadelphia Legal Assistance are working hard to address this growing problem. Advocacy efforts are currently underway to halt sheriff sales for certain classes of vacant lots. Some policy solutions already exist, especially for vacant lots that are City-owned. In some cases, stakeholders may even have legal rights: Neighbors who have tended to vacant lots adjoining their properties may have a path to ownership through a legal doctrine known as adverse possession.

Existing policy solutions (e.g. side yard program)
Policy reform (e.g. moratorium on sheriff sales for qualifying parcels

Explore Vacant Lots

To that end, we have teamed up with Philadelphia Legal Assistance to create a web app to visualize vacant properties in Philadelphia and aggregate relevant data to assess viable legal and policy interventions. Incorporated into this dashboard is an algorithm that predicts which properties are at greatest risk of disposition and development.

Neighbors, property owners, policymakers, and members of the public can use this dashboard to understand whether a community asset in their neighborhood may be under threat. We hope that a greater awareness of this problem may help to prevent more cases like La Finquita in the future.