A group of activists wants Allan Domb out of City Council. They say he shouldn’t be making decisions about development policy because of his lucrative second job as one of Center City’s largest property owners and top condo Realtors.
The criticism comes as the municipal primary election season enters its final weeks. Domb faces 43 competitors for his at-large seat on the Council. Philly’s 10-year tax abatement has emerged as a major issue for voters this election season, and most non-incumbent candidates say they want to overhaul or eliminate the incentive, which gives owners of new or rehabbed property a decade-long tax break on the improved building.
The group 215 People’s Alliance rallied Thursday outside the Residences at The Ritz-Carlton, across from City Hall — a highrise where Domb’s firm sold a few tax-abated condos.
“It is not surprising that Councilman Allan Domb has been an outspoken proponent of the 10-year tax abatement,” said Chenjerai Kumanyika, an activist with the alliance. “As both a major property owner and a luxury real estate broker, Allan Domb has a vested interest in maintaining the 10-year tax abatement.”
The group released a report entitled “Let Them Eat Lead” — a dramatic reference to the conditions of Philadelphia public schools. Critics have long argued that the abatement robs the Philadelphia School District of funds it desperately needs to educate students and make improvements, such as remediating lead, to schools.
Buildings represented by Domb’s brokerage firm received $12.3 million in abatements in 2018, according to the report. Buildings Domb personally owns received $541,000 in abatments between 2008 and 2019, it said.
Domb said the report vastly overstates how much he’s benefited from the abatement.
“Since I’ve been in office, I haven’t developed any buildings on a large scale that have gotten an abatement,” said Domb. “I got one, maybe two buildings that got an abatement, the Warwick and Parc. Do I have a brokerage? Yes. Do I have real estate agents? Yes. But they don’t really benefit from the abatement.”
Domb said it is misleading to contend that buildings where he has done business received $12 million in abatements because he did not directly benefit.
“I’m not sure they understand how the abatement works. The buyer receives the benefit of the abatement, not the real estate agent,” said Domb. “I checked with the Board of Ethics and they said they’d get back to me, but, on the surface, they said they don’t think there is anything that is improper there.”
215 People’s Alliance frames Domb’s real estate industry job as a potential conflict that prevents him from fully representing the public’s interest on City Council, a line of attack that has dogged him since he first ran for office.
“Those millions should go to our schools and our children’s education, not to line the pockets of condo kings like Allan Domb,” said Democratic City Council at-large candidate Erika Almirón, who attended the rally.
David Thornburgh of the good-government group Committee of 70 hadn’t read the report and couldn’t weigh in on its claims, but he said the criticism of Domb spoke to a larger issue in Philadelphia.
“This is a specific instance of a longstanding concern we have had about allowing outside employment for Council members,” wrote Thornburgh in an email message. “As long as we allow outside employment, it creates too many real or perceived conflicts of interest. Cumulatively, those conflicts erode people’s confidence that Council members are making decisions in the public interest and not their own.”
Domb argues that his outside job experience is a strength that he brings to City Hall. He highlighted instances where he has clashed with Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration over city real estate deals, including 4601 Market and 400 North Broad. Domb believes his real estate experience put him in a strong position to critique instances where he thinks the city and its taxpayers are getting a bad deal.
“I’ve found all these areas where we can be more efficient, and I am bringing that up because I think my knowledge helps me understand those issues,” said Domb. “I’m usually in every budget meeting. I work hard at this job.”
The 215 People’s Alliance report recommends that Domb recuse himself from all votes on the tax abatement and not introduce any legislation related to it. (Domb did recuse himself on a vote earlier this year regarding the fire code for high-rise buildings, because he owns several such structures.)
Almirón went further.
“Allan Domb, I’m calling on you to resign and withdraw from the 2019 City Council race,” she said. “We already have a so-called real estate mogul in the White House … we don’t need tone in City Hall.”