Banking on Land
As the first executive director of the Philadelphia Land Bank, Angel Rodriguez ’89 has a vision for creating a more equitable Philadelphia—one vacant lot at a time.
Every job Angel Rodriguez has held since graduating from Haverford in 1989 has prepared him for his latest and greatest challenge: serving as the first full-time executive director of the Philadelphia Land Bank. The quasi-public agency is charged with aiding those seeking to return some of the more than 40,000 abandoned or tax-delinquent properties in the city to productive use. Such changes would benefit neighborhood residents in almost every aspect of their lives.
“Look at the history of America, and it all starts with the land. … Land has everything to do with quality of life,” said Rodriguez, who began leading the Land Bank in September 2017 after sitting on its board of directors for three years. “I’m lucky that I have the work experience I do because it makes a lot of things easier. I understand what a developer thinks because I worked with for-profit and nonprofit developers. I understand the impact development can have on a neighborhood. I’ve seen what it does for families and kids.”
A land bank is a government entity or nonprofit organization that aims to provide a “one-stop shopping” destination for those seeking to buy abandoned or tax-delinquent properties. There are currently 170 land banks in the country, according to the nonprofit Center for Community Progress.
After years of discussion and debate, Philadelphia City Council established the Philadelphia Land Bank by vote in December 2013, and Mayor Michael Nutter signed the bill one month later.
John Kromer ’71, a housing and development consultant who served as Philadelphia’s Director of Housing from 1992 to 2001, remembers musing in the mid-1990s about how a land bank could make a positive difference in the city. At the time, multiple city agencies oversaw these properties, and the burden of determining which agency was in charge of a parcel and what needed to be done to clear its title fell to the prospective buyer. That process was so tangled and daunting, it thwarted even those who had good ideas for reusing those parcels—and the cash to buy. But as Philadelphia’s economic fortunes have soared in recent years, interest in creating a more coherent way of dealing with vacant land has grown.
“Real estate in Philadelphia has become so valuable … and that change underscores the need for neighborhood planning, setting priorities, and determining how to address new properties,” Kromer said. “The ability to influence how property is conveyed and developed is really critical.”
The fact that Rodriguez is the Land Bank’s first full-time executive director hints at the problems with inconsistent leadership and staff shortages that the organization has had since its beginnings. When Rodriguez took over, he said he planned to treat the Land Bank like a start-up company, which, in some ways, it was. The agency’s ultimate goals were clear. What needed to be established were its best practices and operations.
“We’re building and learning at the same time,” Rodriguez said.
The redevelopment agency also must consider all stakeholders— including residents—in its outcomes. While only a fraction of the lots appeal to for-profit developers, the majority of sites are scattered throughout the city and could be purchased by homeowners to expand their properties or by community groups seeking to create gardens or recreation space.
“It’s not that development shouldn’t happen; it’s how you do it,” said Rodriguez, who noted that some developers see residents as impediments while some residents see developers as uncaring outsiders. “The first step to any recovery is to sit and listen and understand what the impact is and to have some empathy. … All too often groups say, ‘We’re going to come in and it’ll be great. It’ll be huge.’ But great for who? I think, historically, in Philadelphia there’s a large population that feels unheard. They’re disaffected and angry.”
After graduating from Haverford with a bachelor’s degree in religion and multicultural studies, Rodriguez moved through the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. At the Philadelphia-based Resources for Human Development, he worked with youth with mental-health issues living in group homes. At YouthBuild Philadelphia, he helped establish one of the first charter schools in the state. As vice president of Community Economic Development for Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha, he saw firsthand how infrastructure beyond one’s own home could positively affect lives.
“Haverford cultivated my need to help the disadvantaged,” said Rodriguez, who grew up in the Bronx and was part of the inaugural class of Prep for Prep, a New York leadership development program that prepares promising minority students for a private high-school education and college afterwards.
Rodriguez’s appointment to lead the Philadelphia Land Bank was widely praised by city leaders.
“He’s a good listener and a good observer, and those qualities will serve him well in that position,” said Kromer. “I’m sure his Haverford experience helped him sharpen those skills, too. It’s not so much about mastering the technical deals as about communication, listening to people and understanding what they want and how to get there from here.”
Rodriguez stressed the same point.
“At Haverford, someone could confront you, but you sat there and you learned how to listen. You’ve got to be able to sit there and be uncomfortable and try to get to consensus,” he said.
“Haverford definitely helped me think correctly. ‘What are you thinking and why?’ Instead of blindly going into something.”
Soon after taking over as executive director, Rodriguez began fleshing out his staff and managing his agency’s budget of $4.8 million. He then looked at the complex process of acquiring tax-delinquent parcels. In a nine-month period, the Land Bank has taken control of more than 100 properties that way, and it expects to move 85 of them along to buyers before 2018’s end. In the three years prior to Rodriguez, the Land Bank acquired only 36 tax delinquent properties.
One of Rodriguez’s many goals going forward is education. Residents who don’t know about the Land Bank can’t take part in its project and are missing out on chances to make their city better.
“People want to live here. We’ve got great arts, great food, a little bit of funk. I think people underestimate that,” he said. “I’d like to see an equitable city where everybody has a vested interest.”