City Council passes affordable housing bill

Dec. 13

By Matt Blanchard
For PlanPhilly

Councilman Darrell Clarke had two ambitious but controversial pieces of legislation scheduled for a final vote before City Council Thursday: One bill would mandate affordable housing, and a second would give neighbors the power to stop so-called “stop-and-go” corner stores.

Opponents say the first bill – which was passed into law – while well-intentioned, could inadvertently hamper construction in the city, while the second, which was held in council by Clarke, could drag small restaurants and delis into legal limbo.

Inclusionary Housing  (Bill # 071005)

The inclusionary housing bill amends the city’s housing code to require that residential developers of more than 20 units set aside at least 10 percent for below-market renters: Half for families making 0% to 80% of the area’s median income, and half for family’s making below 125% of the area’s median income.  Affordable units may be built on-site, or at another site. And if those options won’t work, developers must pay into a city fund.

The bill’s intent is similar to New York City’s 80/20 program, which uses tax-exempt bonds to help finance affordable housing constituting 20 percent of units in a new building. The Philadelphia bill, sponsored by council members Clarke, DiCicco and Blackwell could be described as a 90/10 program, and promises cost-saving incentives such as expedited permitting, building code modifications, the provision of land at a nominal fee, and certain tax credits and density bonuses to be created next year.

Clarke legislative director, William Carter, said the bills had won over housing advocates. He’s also been negotiating for the support of the city’s Building Industry Association.

But prominent developer John Westrum criticized the bill during a meeting of the Zoning Code Commission on Wednesday, saying the bill could essentially end large-scale housing construction in the city, because incentives offered by the city simply don’t cut it.

“The intentions are great. But the ramifications will actually destroy the possibility of achieving those intentions,” Westrum said. “The construction industry is supportive of affordable and workforce housing. But I can tell you, if it passes, there will be no new residential high rises in Philadelphia.”

Read the Inclusionary Housing Bill here: and amendments 1 and 2.

Stop ‘n’ Go   (Bill # 070913)

The second piece of legislation would make a “regulated use” out of so-called “stop-and-go” sandwich shops. Because they sell take-out beer and malt liquor, stop-and-gos can become a nuisance, attracting corner crowds and drug dealers.

Trouble is, the bill appears to catch hundreds of other businesses in its drag net – delis, bistros, bakeries, coffee shops, and water ice stands – by broadly defining two affected categories in the paragraphs below:

(v)    Take-out Restaurant. An establishment engaged in the preparation and retail sale of food and beverages which serves food and/or beverages in disposable packaging and/or containers for consumption by patrons on or off the premises, including but not limited to delicatessens and/or a restaurant with thirty (30) or less seats.

(w)    Small Retail Food Establishment. An establishment having less than 2,000 square feet of floor area, including, but not limited to candy stores and drug stores without soda fountains, grocery, meat markets, and other food stores.

By making these businesses “regulated uses” under the city zoning code, opponents fear the bill would put Wawas in a category with strip clubs, massage parlors, pawn shops, tattoo studios, and penal institutions.  Regulated uses require a variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment – and typically the approval of the district councilperson – to be permitted.

Eileen Evans, deputy commissioner at L&I, the agency tasked with enforcing such a law, was among those skeptical of the legislation at Wednesday’s Zoning Code Commission meeting.  The bill applies to establishments whose take out sales constitute 50% of revenue, a requirement Evans said L&I could hardly enforce.

“It’s an impossible bill,” Evans said. “We don’t have the staff to be sitting outside these places counting people’s take out items.”

Clarke legislative director countered that the maximum floor area stipulated in the bill, 2,000 square feet, was less than half the size of a Wawa, and so would not affect them.  No businesses will be eliminated, Carter said, and new businesses will have only to secure a zoning variance.

“It doesn’t eliminate anyone,” Carter said. “It gives the community a chance to come out and have their say.”

Read the legislation here:

Visit Clarke’s website here:

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