Skip to main content
Clean & Green Philly Logo

Get Access to a Property

In order to intervene in a property, you need to have some kind of legal access to do so.

This means either becoming the owner of the property yourself or reaching a legal agreement with the owner to allow you to transform the property. For every vacant property in Philadelphia, Clean & Green Philly highlights what we think the legal options are to get access to it. Below, we explain in more detail what these options are and how you can get help with each.


Although there are other possible ways to get access to a property (see below), these four routes are the most common and the only ones that we can infer from publicly-available data. Remember also that each of these options depends on your specific context. For example, Act 135 conservatorship can be a very complicated process and is not necessarily suitable for a small community organization that doesn’t have legal support. Our goal is to help you understand which of these options is best suited for you and, based on that information, identify the property or properties where you can have the biggest impact.

Get Permission from Owner

A private land use agreement can be a fast and easy way to get access to a property, provided that you are able to find the owner of the property. When creating such an agreement, you must define the rights and responsibilities of yourself and the property owner. Grounded in Philly provides a good list of key considerations as well as sample agreement language.

Buy from Owner

Buying a property outright can often be the simplest, fastest way to get access to it. However, we recognize that not all properties are affordable to grassroots organizations or private individuals. Based on our stakeholder research, we mark vacant properties with an estimated market value of $1,000 or less as worth buying.

Get through Conservatorship

Act 135 conservatorship can potentially be a faster route than other legal options but is complicated and requires a lot of resources. In short, if a property meets certain specific criteria, it can be turned over to a court-appointed conservator for remediation. According to the law, it must be unoccupied, abandoned by its owner, and unsafe and unhealthy. (For more information, consult this explanation of Act 135.) If those criteria are met, a private individual can petition a judge to appoint them as the conservator of the property. The conservator is then the owner of the property and can improve it as they see fit. However, as mentioned, taking this approach requires legal support and significant financial resources. It is therefore not an ideal route for small organizations, but may be an option for better-resourced organizations such as affordable housing developers.

Get through Land Bank

The Philadelphia Land Bank is part of the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation. It works to redistribute publicly-owned land and return vacant properties to productive use. Vacant properties owned by the Land Bank can often be acquired for nominal or discounted prices for certain kinds of uses or projects.

The advantage of this process is that it enables grassroots organizations and other community-oriented groups to get access to land through a non-competitive disposition process at little to no cost. However, one is still required to go through the Land Bank’s process, which also requires the support of the City Council member in whose district the property falls. Grounded in Philly provides a good overview of how to get permission to use City land.

Do Nothing

Although most properties have at least one reasonable way to get access to them, in some cases, a property may have a particular combination of factors that make it difficult or even impossible to get access to. For example, it may be a valuable property owned by a company that is planning to develop the property at a later date. If the company is unwilling to sell the property or negotiate a private land use agreement, there is basically no way to legally get access to the property. In these cases, we suggest that a more productive use of your time would be to focus on other properties where you can more easily pursue an intervention.

Other Methods

The four options mentioned above are not a complete list of ways to get access to a vacant property in Philadelphia. There are several others worth considering. However, the criteria for these options depend completely on your individual circumstances. Since Clean & Green Philly only uses public data, we have no way of knowing whether you specifically qualify for these programs. However, if you think you might qualify for one of these options, we encourage you to consult a tool like Grounded in Philly’s pathways quiz, which can better help you understand if you qualify.

Tangled Titles

A tangled title is a situation in which the deed to a property lists the name of someone other than the apparent owner. This often happens when children or grandchildren live in homes that are still listed in the name of a deceased parent or grandparent, for example. Tangled titles are a major issue in Philadelphia, affecting at least 10,000 properties, and can contribute to issues of vacancy and neglect. They are also difficult to resolve without legal support. If you are the rightful owner of a property with a tangled title, or if you believe that a vacant property in your neighborhood is the result of a tangled title, consider reaching out to Philadelphia Legal Assistance for help.

Adverse Possession

If you have been using a specific vacant property for a long time against the wishes of the property’s owner, you may qualify for adverse possession. This can be a good way to get full legal ownership of a property that has been neglected by someone else if you have invested effort in maintaining the property yourself (for example, as a member of a community garden). However, be aware that this is a very complicated process. It usually requires a lawyer and can require taking on years of unpaid property taxes. If you believe you may qualify for adverse possession, we recommend reaching out to the Garden Justice Legal Initiative for help.

The Side Yard Program

If you live next to a vacant property, you may be able to buy it from the Land Bank to use as a side or rear yard. This is potentially a quick and easy way to make productive use of a vacant property, and we indicate in our dashboard whether or not a property is eligible for this program. If you believe you have the opportunity to acquire a vacant property through the side yard program, please consult the Land Bank’s guide to the side yard acquisition process.