Prominent local developer Mohamed “Mo” Rushdy joined a meeting of the Philadelphia Land Bank on Tuesday for the first time as a member of the agency’s board, not as an applicant angling for approval of a new project.

The land bank is meant to bring order to the Byzantine process of dispensing city-owned land in Philadelphia, by putting all the city’s publicly owned parcels under one agency and creating an easy way to bring derelict private properties into active use.

The institution was a hot button topic during the mayoral race, partly because Rushdy — vice president of the influential Building Industry Association (BIA) and a prominent political player this year — pressed candidates about how they would improve its functioning.

Rushdy will fill the board position previously held by real estate lawyer Richard DeMarco, who resigned from the board last week.

“The administration is grateful for Mr. DeMarco’s service and after he stepped down Mayor Kenney appointed Mr. Rushdy, who was recommended by many and brings valuable experience with land development and real estate to the role,” said Sarah Peterson, Mayor Jim Kenney’s communications director, in an email message.

The Land Bank’s challenges

The land bank has long faced interference from City Council because district members have great power over land use and has endured conflicts between the different interest groups that vie for control of particular parcels of land. The conflict often escapes public scrutiny but results in long delays in the disposing of public land — a process the agency was meant to simplify.

The BIA and its allies have long advocated to make the land bank better at quickly moving vacant properties into use. Rushdy is a proponent of Turn The Key, a program meant to incentivize the construction of for-sale housing at affordable prices for first time homebuyers.

Turn The Key was created by Council President Darrell L. Clarke with funds from the construction tax, which the BIA supported amid opposition from the rest of the real estate industry.

Rushdy argues that publicly held land that is left empty is a burden on neighborhoods and the city’s tax base and that the land should be returned to use as quickly as possible through the program and other initiatives like it.

“I am humbled and grateful for the mayor’s appointment,” Rushdy said. “In that role, I will continue to push and be vocal about providing wealth-creating affordable homes on public land at scale in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.”

For-profit vs. nonprofit members

Rushdy’s appointment has drawn criticism from many community groups that have long put empty lots to productive use as gardens or pocket parks and say the land bank is not as responsive to them as it is to private sector developers.

Community development corporations and affordable housing groups also argue that even the relatively affordable homes Rushdy wants to build are far too expensive for the majority of residents in neighborhoods across North and West Philadelphia.

“For those of us who are concerned about the limited amount of public land available to develop in areas like the lower court of eastern North Philadelphia, it’s a concern,” said Will Gonzalez, executive director of Ceiba, a coalition of Latino groups.

Critics like Gonzalez are unhappy with Rushdy’s appointment because he is a for-profit developer whose projects periodically come before the land bank board — and did as recently as September, where he lost a vote because there wasn’t a quorum at the meeting.

“He would have to recuse himself from such decisions and dispositions [that concern Rushdy’s business],” Gonzalez said. “I’m sure that there’s many, many public parcels of land that his business interests want to secure from the land bank. It smells a little like the fox guarding the hen house.”

Rushdy said he would recuse himself from any votes concerning his business interests.

He noted that the board has plenty of representatives from the nonprofit development sector, who often have to recuse themselves from votes that concern their own organizations.

“We need the experience of the private sector just as we need the feedback and experience of nonprofits,” Rushdy said. “I love this city too much not to serve it and give my all 150% to leverage the great resource of public land for scalable affordable housing production.”