Councilwoman Tasco: Take a closer look at those “Apples”

Councilwoman Tasco and I agree that, with respect to affordable housing in Philadelphia, “The need is real.”  We also agree that, in her words, “Council’s plan [the “1,500 New Affordable Housing Units Initiative” announced on March 17] is designed to address it.”

Here’s where we disagree: Councilwoman Tasco doesn’t think it’s appropriate for me to draw comparisons between this new initiative and the less-than-successful Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI), launched during the administration of former Mayor John F. Street.

Stating that “it was disappointing” to see my commentary on this subject published, Councilwoman Tasco characterizes the City Council proposal as “a development initiative, whereas NTI was a pre-development program that targeted blight, vacant lots and structures that posed immediate danger to residents.”

In fact, the “Strategy for Investment and Growth” published by the Street Administration in April 2001 called for the development of 16,000 new housing units as one of several “specific goals” of NTI. In the NTI financing plan, the administration proposed the allocation of $900 million in federal and state funds for housing programs, in addition to the expenditure of city bond funds to support site assemblage and site preparation activities similar to those proposed under the 1,500 Affordable Housing Units initiative. 

I agree with Councilwoman Tasco’s statement that “NTI and Council’s current proposal share similar goals.”  So what’s her problem with, as she puts it, “an apples-to-apples comparison” of the two? Consider the following similarities:

•       Reliance on a multi-million dollar bond issue as a major funding source: check.

•       Proposals for large-scale housing production on vacant parcels: check.

•       Use of a not-yet-operational land bank as a resource for site assemblage: check.

And the following:

•       Lack of clarity as to which city agency will be in charge of the initiative and how city development agencies will work together to implement it: check.

•       Absence of criteria for setting priorities in order to guide tough decision-making about which neighborhoods in need of housing will receive funding and which will be left out: check.

•       Public presentation of a detailed proposal without any prior consultation between the legislative and executive branches of municipal government: check.

Just because the new initiative is different from the old initiative in some respects doesn’t mean that past mistakes won’t be repeated this time around—and they will be if we’re not prepared to learn from the NTI experience.

The current status of the Blumberg Apartments, a Philadelphia Housing Authority-owned high-rise complex, to which both Councilwoman Tasco and I make reference in our respective commentary essays, provides a good illustration of a better approach.

Councilwoman Tasco expresses enthusiasm about the $500,000 grant that PHA received a few months ago; but she’s mistaken in stating that the funding is being authorized “to revitalize the Blumberg Apartments.” Instead, as reported in the press, the grant is to be used to support the completion of a master plan that would guide the revitalization of both the Blumberg site as well as the surrounding area. 

Councilwoman Tasco didn’t respond to a related suggestion that I had previously made:

“If the participants in the March 17 press conference really wanted to take action to produce an appropriate mix of affordable and market-rate housing in a changing neighborhood, they should start working together now to get the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s master plan for the neighborhood surrounding the soon-to-be-demolished Blumberg high-rises fully implemented—not just endorsed, but executed on a block-by-block, property-by-property basis.”

During the coming months leading up to the 2015 mayoral and city council elections, we’ll be treated to more proposals for initiatives that are designed to fundamentally improve Philadelphia neighborhoods. But rather than talking up new initiatives that can’t be implemented in the short term, why don’t elected officials and future candidates for office show us that they can use their clout constructively to address current opportunities—such as the need to fully fund Blumberg master plan implementation—right now?

As the City of Philadelphia’s Director of Housing from 1992 to 2001, Kromer supervised the expenditure of more than a billion dollars in public investment in support of housing preservation and development activities that improved living conditions for thousands of Philadelphia families. The perspective gained through this experience is described in his most recent book, Fixing Broken Cities: The Implementation of Urban Development Strategies.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal