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Staring Down the Speculators: An Analysis of Vacant Land in Philadelphia

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by Elam Boockvar-Klein

Elam Boockvar-Klein (he/him) is currently pursuing a Master’s in City Planning from the University of
Pennsylvania, where he examines the transformative possibilities associated with equitable development. At every stage of his career, he has been grounded by a belief in the power of the intersection of community organizing,
urban planning, and real estate development to work towards reparations for marginalized neighborhoods.

[1] Ben Seal, “A Philly environmental leaders’ grand vision to turn vacant lots into a new
park system,” BillyPenn, August 27, 2023

[2] Laurence Ukenye and Natalie Kerr, “40,000 vacant lots: how Philadelphia’s lack of
green space worsens gun violence,” The Temple News, May 27, 2022.


While working at Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia, a realtor approached us to see if we were interested in acquiring vacant parcels owned by one of her clients. She sent a list of more than 100 different addresses, all vacant properties scattered throughout North Philadelphia, all owned by the same company. As a non-profit developer, we ultimately did not have the capacity to acquire properties on the private market. We politely declined. 


    But as a soon-to-be-planner, this experience perked my interest. I could not help but wonder: who are the people who own all of this vacant land, what are their motives, and where is said land located in Philadelphia?

Neglected Vacant Land is Harmful


    Research across the board has shown the harms caused by the concentration of vacant land—particularly neglected vacant land—in a given community. According to a recent BillyPenn article, studies have shown that these properties are associated with poor mental and physical health, drive down surrounding property values, and contribute to violent crime [1]. Moreover, vacant land is fertile ground for the crisis of illegal dumping plaguing many parts of the city. 

    These quality-of-life issues also have negative fiscal impacts. Neglected vacant properties often carry high maintenance costs and unpaid taxes, which diverts funding from other potential neighborhood-enriching uses. It’s clear how this vicious cycle might continue; vacant land contributing to a poor quality of life and starving public resources, in turn begetting fewer dollars invested in the neighborhood, leading to more vacancy, so on and so forth. 

    To be clear, not all vacant lots are created equal. Many are turned into vibrant greenspaces, particularly in predominantly black communities that lack the same access to parks as their wealthier, whiter counterparts [2]. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society alone manages more than 10,000 lots on an annual basis. But from my time at Habitat for Humanity looking at land all over the city, it is safe to assume that where there is a high concentration of vacant land, there is also a high concentration of neglected vacant land—and all of the negative externalities that come with it. 

   Unfortunately, this crisis in a post-industrial urban context is not unique to Philadelphia. Detroit, Cleveland, and Baltimore—just to name a few – all have similar challenges. Identifying patterns and solutions in one city could provide insight into how to remedy the same problem in others.

Image: Vacant lot in Olde Kensington, Philadelphia
Source: Bailey Bradford

Defining Philadelphia’s Speculators   


    Who, then, owns the vacant land in Philadelphia? Of the city’s 40,000 vacant lots, about a quarter are publicly-owned, primarily by the city’s land bank – the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority [3]. The rest, nearly 30,000 properties, are privately-owned. The profile of private vacant landowners varies dramatically, from individuals to small developers to churches and academic institutions. But based on our experience with the realtor, I specifically wanted to understand patterns of speculative vacant landownership within the city. In doing so, we could identify the private actors disproportionately responsible for the negative neighborhood externalities of vacant land. 


    Dubbed ‘land banking,’ speculative land ownership entails an investor purchasing a parcel, waiting for land values to rise, and then selling at the precise moment when the market is hottest [4]. Though the land itself may have a tangibly negative effect on the neighborhood in the intervening years, if all goes according to plan, the speculator still turns a profit. For this project, I wanted to figure out who was profiting off of Philadelphia’s struggling neighborhoods, and precisely which neighborhoods were viewed as speculatively profitable.    


    As such, what follows is an in-depth analysis of what I term “speculated vacant land,” or vacant parcels owned by speculators. For the purposes of this study, Philadelphia’s speculators are defined as those companies or individuals that own 10 or more vacant parcels within the city. Roughly based on the City’s definition of large landlords [5], this threshold assumes a certain level of scale—that a speculator’s business requires they have a critical mass of parcels in their portfolio to remain profitable and minimize risk. That said, it is impossible to impose speculative intentions on every single company that owns more than 10 vacant properties in Philadelphia. Nonetheless, this definition casts a wide net to capture the lion’s share of speculated vacant land in the city.

[3] Ukenye and Kerr

] Stephen Hoskins, “Everybody Works But the Vacant Lot: How Speculators Profit
From our Thriving Cities,” Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, accessed February

[5] “Rental Improvement Fund,” Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation,
accessed February 2024.

Figure 1: Philadelphia's Vacant Land [i] 

Philadelphia’s Bleeding Heart 


    Using data from Philadelphia’s Office of Property Assessment, Figure 1 shows where vacant land of all types lies across the city. Smack in the middle of the map, North Philadelphia is visually home to the highest concentration of vacant parcels. This represents the bleeding heart of the city, where neighborhoods are pockmarked with empty lots—and left to face the externalities that come with them. Moving outwards, large vacant parcels puncture the city’s perimeter, likely representing old industrial uses that have yet to be adapted.    


    Unsurprisingly, as shown in Figure 2, speculated vacant land is concentrated in that same bleeding heart of the city. The census tracts with the highest shares of speculated vacant parcels, more than 4% of the total number of lots, congregate between Girard and Allegheny Avenues in North Philadelphia. Put together, the city’s health—and thus that of the neighborhoods therein – are deeply negatively impacted by this vacancy reality. Having identified where speculated land was located, I then wanted to understand what could be learned about the trajectories of those neighborhoods – what made them susceptible to speculative investment?

Figure 2: Concentration of Philadelphia's Speculated Vacant Land [ii]

[i] Office of Property Assessment Properties & Assessments Dataset, Department of
Records Property Parcels Dataset, OpenDataPhilly

[ii] Ibid.

[6] Jake Blumgart, “Northern Liberties grows up as high rises for families come to
Philly’s most gentrified neighborhood,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 13, 2023.

[7] Jake Blumgart, “Philadelphia’s hottest new neighborhood? Underneath the elevated
train tracks n Fishtown and Kensington,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December
28, 2023.

Predicting the Presence of Speculated Vacant Land   


    Speculators generally aim to own land that will increase in value over time. Land is only valuable insofar as it is profitable for a developer to build on it – and thus there is demand from potential tenants/buyers to use that building. And it will only increase in value when there is more competition to build on that property. As such, I hypothesized that speculators in Philadelphia own most of their land adjacent to neighborhoods with hot development markets. With nearby development pressures, proximate vacant land might become increasingly appealing for developers, and thus see its value rise.   


    To assess this hypothesis, I utilized new construction building permit data from Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections as a proxy for the strength of the development market in neighborhoods across the city. The dataset accounts for projects from 2016 to the present day. The more building permits approved, the greater the development activity – and thus the greater potential value of vacant land nearby.  

     Visually examining the correlation between concentrations of building permits and speculated vacant land shows a clear rippling pattern in Figure 3. Let’s picture we are smack in the middle of the city at City Hall. If we move outward in concentric rings, the nearest neighborhoods with hotspots -- Callowhill, Northern Liberties, and Brewerytown to the north; Point Breeze and Pennsport to the south -- show a high concentration of construction, but little speculated land. These neighborhoods have seen significant development in the last decade or more, leaving minimal vacant land at this point [6].   


    From Northern Liberties, moving north along the corridor of the Market Frankford Line, a handful of neighborhoods represent concentrations of both new construction and speculated land—Old Kensington, Kensington, and parts of Fishtown. These neighborhoods have only recently seen high rates of construction, and given their industrial histories, still have a critical mass of vacant land [7]. As prime areas of land ownership for speculators, land values have risen dramatically in these parts of the city in recent years.    


    Put together, this pattern suggests a clear correlation between concentrations of new construction and speculated vacant land. Where buildings are disproportionately being built, speculators disproportionately own land. Importantly, the directionality of the relationship between the two works both ways: just as the current concentration of development helps predict hot spots of speculative land ownership, so too can the current concentration of speculated vacant land suggest a potential future of concentrated new development. Empty land, after all, is a prerequisite to ground-up construction.

Image: Vacant lot between two new buildings

Source: Elam Boockvar-Klein
Figure 3: Comparative Hot Spot Analysis of Speculated Vacant Land and New Construction [ii]

The Next Big (Neighborhood) Thing   


    So where in the city are speculators being truly speculative—where there is not yet a construction boom, but nonetheless a hot spot of speculated vacant land?   


    As showcased by the deep red color in Figure 3, instead of continuing northeast along the Market-Frankford Line, speculation appears to be concentrated to the west along Girard and Allegheny Avenues. Strawberry Mansion and Stanton in North Philly, along with Mantua and Powelton just across the Schuykill River, show high concentrations of speculated land, though they have not experienced high rates of new development in recent years. Speculators’ behavior provides a peak into the possible future in store for these parts of the city. Adjacent to the new construction hot spots of Fishtown, Old Kensington, and Brewerytown, these neighborhoods appear to pose the greatest profit-making potential for landowners. As explained earlier, that profit – predicated on increased land value – is only possible insofar as it is desirable to build on those parcels.    

    By following the established logic between patterns of speculated vacant land and new construction, we can predict where construction might move in the coming years. And if speculators’ desired future comes to fruition, it will be important to ensure existing residents benefit from the potential newfound development in their neighborhoods.


The ‘Land Hoes’ of Philadelphia   


    When that realtor approached us at Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia, I specifically wanted to figure out who her client was. What’s more, I wondered how many similar speculators were operating in Philadelphia. To that end, I attempted to identify the largest of them – those that own more than fifty vacant parcels throughout the city. However, identifying the scale of any single company’s portfolio is notoriously difficult. Property owners typically have numerous names associated with their parcels, using separate entities to reduce legal liability. That way, if something goes awry at one property, others owned by the same company would not be affected financially. To get around this tricky reality, I sorted parcels by owners’ mailing addresses rather than name, assuming that each separate legal entity would be connected to the same company office.   

[iii] Office of Property Assessment Properties & Assessments Dataset, Department
of Records Property Parcels Dataset, Licenses & Inspections Building and Zoning
Permits, OpenDataPhilly.

However, identifying the scale of any single company’s portfolio is notoriously difficult. Property owners typically have numerous names associated with their parcels, using separate entities to reduce legal liability. That way, if something goes awry at one property, others owned by the same company would not be affected financially.

Image: Vacant parcel used as park space in Mantua, West Philadelphia

Source: Elam Boockvar-Klein

    This strategy successfully unveiled the city’s largest speculators. All told, just fifteen companies own more than 50 vacant parcels in Philadelphia, each hiding behind a plethora of LLC names. Together, they own more than 2,000 parcels, or more than 35% of all speculated vacant parcels throughout the city.


    Perhaps most astonishingly, one mailing address stood out from the rest: 25 South 19th Street. With 643 parcels attached to that address, this company owns more than 3 times that of the next highest speculator. They’ve got 77 different LLC names associated with that address, some out of an SNL skit: ‘Land Ho,’ ‘Stable Genius,’ and ‘Turf Wizard,’ just to name a few. While they laugh behind closed doors, real Philadelphians are harmed by their business model. And yet they will likely make immense profit, without ever having to pay for the negative externalities caused by that land sitting vacant.


    As it turns out, 25 South 19th Street was the client whose realtor reached out to us at Habitat for Humanity. It would’ve been a cruel twist of fate for an organization like ours to help a company like theirs turn a profit.


Learning from Detroit: The Land Value Tax

    Through a seemingly mundane tax policy change, Detroit, the poster child of post-industrial urban vacancy, is leading the charge to address the challenges posed by a surplus of speculated vacant land. In the years following the Great Recession of 2009, the Motor City saw a surge in speculative land purchasing. Like Philadelphia, much of that land remains vacant today [8]. This reality is in part because Detroit’s current property tax system unintentionally encourages vacancy and abandonment. Taxes are almost entirely driven by the assessed value of a property’s building, rather than the land underneath it. Without assessed structures atop their vacant parcels, Detroit speculators pay as little as $30 in property taxes per year, even though their business practice has a huge potential payoff [9].


    Through his proposed land value tax (LVT), Mayor Mike Duggan wants to change this regressive system where speculators turn a profit and homeowners foot the tax bill. First promoted by Henry George in the late 1800s, the LVT shifts the property tax burden from the building to the land underneath it. By placing a greater tax burden on the land, the theory holds, landowners would be incentivized to turn their land into productive uses quickly—or else face high holding costs. Amidst a national housing shortage, the policy has gained renewed traction today, viewed as a tool to spur housing development. And while implemented at a small scale in towns throughout the country, Detroit would be the first major American city to experiment with the LVT [10].


    To minimize the prevalence of speculated vacant land, Philadelphia should follow Detroit’s lead, adopting a stronger land value tax to disincentivize speculative land investment—and minimize the negative externalities that come with it. Like Detroit, Philadelphia’s property tax is made up of two components: a tax on the building, and a tax on the land. But the math is skewed; 76% of an owner’s property tax bill comes from the value of a building, with just 24% derived from the assessed value of land [11]. What if the tax bill breakdown was 50-50, or 75-25 in reverse? Either way, a stronger tax on land value would reduce the profitability of speculative land ownership in Philadelphia. In doing so, speculators would be less likely to exploit a neighborhood’s struggles for company gain—and instead would be incentivized to turn parcels into productive uses for residents.


    Philadelphia has considered the land value tax before. Just two years ago, Councilmember Derek Green held a hearing on the LVT, advocating for a shift to a 50-50 property tax breakdown between land and building [12]. But it has not received any further attention from political decision-makers since that time. It is time to re-ignite the conversation. Ultimately, the LVT represents an opportunity for Philadelphia to pioneer much-needed tax reform to address our city’s crisis of vacant land. Without it, the company with offices at 25 South 19th Street—among others—will continue to shape the futures of some of our city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.

[8] Conor Dougherty, “The Georgists Are Out There, and They Want to Tax Your
Land,” New York Times, November 12, 2023.

[9] Ibid.

[10]  Harrison Clanton, “Detroit, MI: A Case Study in Taxing Land Instead of Property,”
Bipartisan Policy Center, December 6, 2023.

[11] Josie Faass, “How a land value tax could make Philadelphia a more equitable city,”
WHYY PlanPhilly, October 3, 2020.

[12] Taylor Allen, “A ‘progressive’ approach to taxing land gains traction in Philly Council,”
WHYY PlanPhilly, May 4, 2021.

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