On Thursday afternoon, a Rules Committee hearing on Council President Darrell Clarke’s bill that would create a Neighborhood Improvement District (NID) near Temple University turned into a gripe session about City services or, more accurately, the lack thereof.
Clarke’s bill, which was introduced earlier this year, would levy an additional seven percent property tax on non-owner-occupied residential properties in the area surrounding Temple. The extra assessment would, according to the bill, fund extra services like private security officers and street cleaning.
The bill is Clarke’s latest effort to deal with fallout from the proliferation of off-campus housing for Temple students, who, some residents complain, leave trash on the street on non-collection days, carry on loud parties into the wee hours, and generally disrespect the people who’ve lived in the neighborhood all their lives. Last fall, Clarke tried unsuccessfully to insert a ban on new student housing in the area into the new zoning code.
The bill is being backed by members of the Temple Area Property Association, a group of landlords who own property in the neighborhood. They, along with Clarke, say the NID will benefit the community without costing its longtime residents a dime.
But many residents see it differently. At a meeting at Temple University in March, residents expressed deep suspicion of the proposed district, and particularly of its leadership. They feared the NID management would look out only for the interests of area landlords and students and the University, and that they would be pushed out of their neighborhood.
“The North Central NID is really nothing more than the Temple Area Property Association taking complete control over our neighborhood,” said Vivian Van Story, a North Central resident and founder of Community Land Trust Corporation, reading from prepared comments at Thursday’s hearing. “With the power to tax, they will decide the future of our neighborhood and not the residents of North Philadelphia.”
Clarke has maintained that much of the opposition to the Neighborhood Improvement District is based on misinformation; he has continually reminded anyone who’ll listen that owner-occupants in North Central will not see a rise in their property tax bills. In response to early concerns, Clarke amended the bill by changing some language related to the powers of the NID leadership board. But substantially, the bill remains much as it was introduced.
“After careful review of the adopted amendments to the plan for the North Central Neighborhood Improvement District which are the subject of today’s hearing,” said James S. White, former Managing Director for the City of Philadelphia and a member of Temple’s Board of Trustees, “I remain convinced that Bill Number 120020 should not be passed by City Council.”
White cited the lack of support from area residents and “a general feeling” that TAPA is interested only in renting more properties and not improving neighborhood quality of life in articulating his opposition to the NID. He also proposed an alternative.
“Rather than the creation of a neighborhood improvement district,” White said, “the City should develop and publish a Master Plan or North Central Philadelphia to inspire action, commit adequate resources and shape the future of this area.”
It’s the “adequate resources” part of that suggestion that’s problematic. Because when it comes to providing city services to North Central, according to Clarke, the City doesn’t have them.
Clarke said that there is just one L&I inspector responsible for issuing code violations for the area. He said that the police, given the choice between responding to a noise complaint in North Central or a shooting in Strawberry Mansion, will respond to the shooting every time. The North Central NID, he said, is a mechanism that will respond to some of the most immediate problems in the targeted area.
One resident, Robert Winfield, said it doesn’t make sense for anyone—landlord or not—to pay extra taxes for services that base taxes are supposed to cover.
“I would like to know,” Winfield said in prepared remarks, “if for the past two years you (Clarke) along with the other parties responsible for bringing Bill 120020 to this chamber today just once went to [L&I or Streets Department] and asked why these violations are left unanswered? … We are paying taxes already for the services that Bill 120020 would create.”
Other witnesses raised wide-reaching grievances, from the lack of community engagement in planning the NID to the lack of minority participation in development projects, an absence of permits, the use of shoddy construction materials, and builders’ practice of “short dumping” debris from construction sites into vacant lots.
Councilman Bill Greenlee, who chairs the Rules Committee, struggled to keep witnesses’ remarks confined to the topic of the NID. At the outset of the hearing, he said that the Committee would take no action that day, and would instead recess the hearing after the testimonies and pick it up again later.
Asked why the hearing was being recessed with no recommendation, Clarke said the bill was “not ready.”
“My position is people need to understand what the proposal does, and what it doesn’t do,” Clarke said.
Clarke also made reference to an informal “moratorium” on transferring any City-owned land in that area to a developer for the purposes of student housing. Rather than forming an official policy, however, Clarke, as district councilperson, simply hasn’t been supporting the disposition of any City-owned land to student-housing developers.
Ultimately, Clarke said that residents’ complaints about problems in the area are founded, but the North Central NID is a good step toward solving some of them.
“The reality is that a significant amount of the complaints are things that the Neighborhood Improvement District, if formed, can deal with,” Clarke said. “ … [but] the displeasure with some of the behavior and activity of some of the student housing and some of the developers is such that people can’t get beyond that to actually focus on the fact that we’re trying to increase revenue so we can put more resources to deal with some of these challenges.”
After the bill officially gets through the Rules Committee hearing which was recessed Thursday—no word yet on when that will be—there will be a 45-day period during which 51 percent or more of affected property owners will need to oppose the NID in order for it to be killed.
Asked whether there would be a point at he would stop trying to convince residents of the benefits of the NID and simply move the bill forward regardless, Clarke briefly outlined his legislative policy: “I don’t ever say what I’m going to do until I do it,” he said.