PHILADELPHIA â€” To have any hope of reviving this cityâ€™s many blighted streets, developers would have to purchase property like 1913 North 24th Street, an empty lot that is still officially owned by a man who died in 1969.
Golden Eubanks, a former sharecropper who moved to Philadelphia from South Carolina in the 1920s, bought a three-story rowhouse on the lot for $4 on Sept. 1, 1929, and raised 10 children there while working as an operator for a public utility, according to city property records and the 1930 census.
The house has since been demolished, and the Eubanks children, who were born between 1912 and 1926, have all died, leaving a property still in the name of their parents.
â€œAll of his children were dead before Reagan left office, but the property is still racking up property taxes,â€ said Garrett Oâ€™Dwyer, policy and communications associate with the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, a nonprofit organization that acts as an advocate for mixed-income neighborhoods.
Abandoned properties, numbering an estimated 32,000 owned by both private and public sectors citywide, may be tempting targets for developers during a current real estate boom in some areas of Philadelphia. But potential buyers have often been deterred by delinquent taxes or by having to locate absent owners or determine that the owners are deceased.
Developers and city officials hope that the Philadelphia Land Bank, a recently created city program, will help sift through the labyrinth of records on vacant and abandoned lots like the Eubanks property and make them available for sale and redevelopment.
But some neighborhood residents and activists worry that developersâ€™ efforts will lead to higher taxes and gentrification, forcing out longtime homeowners.
On Dec. 9, Philadelphiaâ€™s mayor, Michael A. Nutter, announced the transfer of deeds for 150 properties owned by the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation, a city agency, to the Land Bank. The transfer represented the first set of buildings or lots to be taken over by the new entity.
A further 1,135 city-owned properties are to be transferred to the Land Bank by the end of 2015, beginning a process that could shift about 8,500 publicly owned vacant properties from a number of city agencies to a single entity that would become a â€œone-stop shopâ€ for developers.
While other United States cities have operated land banks for years, Philadelphia, with a population of about 1.5 million, is the largest to do so. Its program, created by a City Council resolution in December 2013, is expected to contain more properties than the others when it is fully operational.
If a private property becomes tax-delinquent, the Land Bank will get a right of first refusal to acquire it without a cash payment before it goes to a sheriffâ€™s sale. Any acquisition by the Land Bank will be subject to negotiation with other city agencies, especially the Department of Revenue, which may wish to prevent the property from entering the Land Bank in an effort to obtain unpaid taxes.
In the case of the Eubanks lot, city records this year say property taxes owed amount to $4,406.81. Most or all of the amount probably accrued in the decades since Mr. Eubanks and his wife, Meta, died, but they are listed in city records as owing the amount. The lot has a market value of $21,100.
The Land Bankâ€™s first acquisitions from the public sector include 18 properties in the 1400 block of North Marston Street in the Brewerytown section of Philadelphia. The street once contained 59 of the cityâ€™s characteristic rowhouses but now has only 12 structures, six of which are occupied. The other six are boarded up and derelict. A total of 26 properties on the street are tax-delinquent.
The streetâ€™s privately owned properties include No. 1432, now a vacant lot, which was last sold for $3,750 in 1961, is now valued at $3,400, and owes city property taxes of $8,281, according to city records.
On a recent visit to the street, discarded tires, cardboard boxes and an abandoned car were seen littering the overgrown lots, and a pile of loose bricks lay at the base of a wall of shattered stucco.
The blighted landscape, only two miles from the gleaming skyscrapers of downtown Philadelphia, became an increasingly familiar sight as the decline of manufacturing drove out many residents starting in the 1960s, and it has become a longstanding challenge for city officials seeking to return large areas of the city to productive use.
By consolidating vacant property, the Land Bank aims to free up adjoining lots that can be put together to create market-rate or low-income housing, commercial developments or green space.
The Land Bank will determine whether developersâ€™ plans are appropriate to local needs such as more affordable units in neighborhoods dominated by market-rate housing, or more market-rate development in a neighborhood that already has a good stock of subsidized properties, said Beth McConnell, policy director for the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, which advocates for the Land Bank.
Ms. McConnell said the Land Bank had the potential to clear urban blight and return land to productive use in a way that conforms with neighborhood and citywide plans.
â€œItâ€™s different than the alternative of just making everything available at the market rate, and whoever the highest bidder is gets it,â€ she said.
The Land Bank will not stop developers from acquiring private property, but it could make it easier for them to do so, Ms. McConnell said. â€œMarket-rate developers can continue to do what they do now,â€ she said. If the developers can find the owners, they can buy the properties â€œif the Land Bank doesnâ€™t get access to them first,â€ she added.
City officials hope that the new availability of property on streets like North Marston will spread development from adjoining neighborhoods thatÂ are already seeing new construction, and higher prices, as a real estate boom in central Philadelphia ripples outward.
But on Etting Street, whose houses back onto North Marston, Lee Chamblis, a resident, fears that the arrival of developers will eventually drive out longtime residents.
â€œImprovement is a good thing but I really donâ€™t believe they are going to leave it as a community like it is,â€ said Mr. Chamblis, 48, who inherited the house he has lived in all his life.
â€œI wholeheartedly believe this is about money. They are going to build condos and they are trying to chase the black people out,â€ said Mr. Chamblis, who is black.
Mr. Chamblis, a self-employed electrician, said he would welcome new affordable housing if it came to the neighborhood but he does not believe it will happen. â€œItâ€™s just unrealistic,â€ he said. â€œIt doesnâ€™t work that way around here right now.â€
Mr. Chamblis said the market value of his house had risen along with the development of nearby streets but so had his property taxes. He was worried that redevelopment like that sought by the Land Bank would price people like him out of the neighborhood.
â€œPeople will lose what they have lived in all their lives,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s being taken from under them because they canâ€™t afford to maintain it.â€
But developers who supported the Land Bank during its five-year creation welcomed its first acquisition of properties.
â€œFor the development community, having the city understand what property it owns, exactly what that property is, and that there truly is clear title, is huge for our folks,â€ said Anne Fadullon, president of the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia, a trade group.
Without the Land Bank, a developer seeking to buy vacant property in Philadelphia could be confronted with tax liens applied to the property during its public ownership, discouraging acquisition, Ms. Fadullon said.
â€œIt was really a nightmare for the developer to work with the city to get rid of these liens,â€ she said.
Developers are looking forward to working with a single city entity rather than three or more agencies that made for a cumbersome acquisition process.
â€œWe havenâ€™t seen the first properties come out of the Land Bank yet but now that there are properties in, we are anxious to see that moving,â€ she said.
By JON HURDLE forÂ nytimes.com