With thousands of vacant lots on hand, Philadelphia is trying to make it easier for people to buy them.

If you just look at this map, you might think hardly anyone lives in Philadelphia anymore. But, no, the fifth largest city in the United States hasn't emptied out in Detroit-like droves. It has taken a population hit, however, losing nearly 500,000 people since 1950, and it does have a vacant property problem. 

The city has about 10,000 vacant properties on its hands and about 30,000 privately-owned vacant properties. According to FixItPhilly, a development coalition between businesses, non-profits, and local government, all these vacant properties have cost homeowners an estimated $3.6 billion in property value reduction, or about an $8,000 reduction per home. And they're a burden on the taxpayer, costing $20 million each year to clean up waste, control pests, and provide fire and police services. And with 17,000 vacant parcels that are tax delinquent, the city loses out on an estimated $2 million in revenue each year.

Now the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) has come up with a package of tools it hopes will make the long, involved process of buying vacant properties easier for developers and residents. They recently enacted a series of policies with the goal of making the sale of publicly owned vacant properties easier. As part of the initiative, they created an online map (above) of city-owned vacant properties which includes a way to get the buying process started more quickly. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on how John Carpenter, the PRA’s deputy executive director, describes the project:

[It's] a “front door” to the city for potential developers. Before, there was not so much a doorway as a labyrinth of confusing pathways to acquiring vacant land from city agencies that more often than not led to a dead end.

Instead of navigating that labyrinth, potential buyers can take the first step toward buying vacant property by filling out a short form stating their interest. Once the form is filed, you can then follow your progress online.

Vacant properties are not a problem unique to Philadelphia. Nationwide, according to a report last fall from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the number of vacant properties has increased from 7 million in 2000 to 10 million in 2010. 

It's certainly an arduous process for cities on a budget to seek out and map thousands of properties and then turn around and act like real estate agents -- getting this project off the ground took more than a year for Philadelphia. But the trade off is by any measure more costly: maintaining all those crumbling buildings and all that unused land.

Top image: Flickr/MikeWebkist

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