Members of the Philadelphia City Council possess a unique privilege when the city wants to sell land in their districts. The privilege is called “councilmanic prerogative,” and it gives every member of the council the right to veto any sale by the city of land in the council member’s district. The prerogative recently gave rise to a real estate dispute concerning allegations that one of the council members abused the prerogative by refusing to let the city sell certain land to a developer.
The council member believed that the land in question should be used for low-income housing. The developer, on the other hand, believed that he had made a valid offer to buy the land that was improperly rejected by the council. The court awarded $34,000 in damages to the developer, and the council member has vowed to appeal the ruling.
The council member said that the councilmanic prerogative is based upon the assumption that individual council members are the best judges of how city-owned land in their districts should be used. He described his veto of the sale as an effort to push back against gentrification in order to protect low-income working class families who need adequate housing. Many of the council members spoke in favor of the prerogative during the trial and afterward.
This property dispute illustrates once again the conflict between developers wanting to upgrade the housing stock in Philadelphia’s many old neighborhoods and the needs of people who have lived in these neighborhoods for many years, sometimes for generations. This conflict is not likely to be resolved any time soon. Anyone wishing to buy or sell land in an older neighborhood may need to consider the effect of the councilmanic prerogative, strategies for dealing with the district’s council member and how to achieve a successful outcome.
Source: Philadelphia Tribune, “Councilman Johnson vows to appeal court ruling,” Damon C. Williams, May 13, 2016