The City Buys Back Tax Liens to Save Community Gardens 

On Tuesday, June 20th, Neighborhood Gardens Trust was thrilled to join a press conference and garden tour celebrating a successful campaign to protect nearly one hundred community gardens from the threat of sheriff’s sale and to call for clear pathways to community ownership of the land.

This celebration recognized an important move by the City of Philadelphia to overcome a huge barrier to preserving threated gardens. The city has acquired historic tax liens that encumber 91 community garden properties, which eliminates the risk of the gardens being lost to speculation and development. Carla Puppin, NGT’s board President spoke on behalf of Neighborhood Gardens Trust about the critical impact that this success will have for NGT, and others working to secure and protect threatened gardens, and green spaces across Philadelphia.

The back story: In 1997, the city sold off tax liens on 33,000 properties to a private lienholder to raise $72 million. When the city defaulted on $42 million in bonds secured by the liens, thousands of abandoned, tax-delinquent properties ended up encumbered by liens held by U.S. Bank. A significant number of these properties were abandoned lots that have been cared for by neighborhood residents for decades as community gardens and were highly vulnerable to being auctioned at sheriff’s sales and acquired by speculators.

Not only did the U.S. Bank liens put the gardens in jeopardy of being sold at public auction to land speculators, but the liens also prevented the Philadelphia Land Bank from doing what it was created to do: acquire abandoned, tax delinquent land, and return it to productive reuse.

Five years ago, NGT tried to work with U.S. Bank to find a solution for the gardens we were working to preserve. When U.S. Bank was unresponsive, we started to bring the issue up with City Council, working with the Public Interest Law Center (PILC), to raise awareness of the detrimental impact of the liens at multiple public hearings.

Those hearings and press coverage of the issue got the attention of Councilmember Kendra Brooks, who took the lead, convening a working group to work towards a solution. For close to two years, representatives of NGT, Cesar Andreú Iglesias Community Garden, PILC, and other advocates have worked together with Councilmembers Brooks and Gauthier to reach this important outcome.

The garden properties that have been protected include ten land parcels at six community gardens that NGT is actively working to preserve. There is still work ahead to secure ownership of the gardens, but the acquisition of the liens is a critical step. NGT will continue to work closely with the city and advocates to ensure that these properties can be protected for years and generations to come.