‘Bold and targeted action’: Legislative package seeks to protect Philly renters and homeowners

The bills are part of City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier’s “Defying Displacement” campaign.

Listen 1:00
Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Have a question about Philly’s neighborhoods or the systems that shape them? PlanPhilly reporters want to hear from you! Ask us a question or send us a story idea you think we should cover.

On Thursday, Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier will introduce a legislative package designed to protect low-income tenants and homeowners against displacement while providing more funding for affordable housing projects.

Gauthier, one of the council’s most vocal housing advocates, hopes to help residents trying to rent on the private market through the Housing Choice Voucher Program; homeowners burdened by increased property taxes; and neighborhoods that desperately need affordable housing.

The effort comes as the city continues to experience an affordable housing crisis compounded by historically high rents and mortgage rates, a reality Gauthier fears will make Philadelphia unaffordable for its most vulnerable residents if left unchecked.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“We want to grow. We want to welcome new people. We don’t want to do that at the expense of the people who have been here,” said Gauthier, who chairs the council’s Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and the Homeless.

The package, part of Gauthier’s “Defying Displacement” campaign, primarily aims to aid Black and brown residents with low incomes, including constituents in her 3rd District, which includes swiftly gentrifying sections of West Philadelphia such as University City.

One bill would enable eligible residents to effectively freeze their property tax bill regardless of how much the tax rate or assessed property value increases. Under the measure, a single-person household must earn below $33,500 per year and $41,500 for a couple. The totals are tied to enabling legislation former Gov. Tom Wolf signed in 2022.

During Philadelphia’s last round of property assessments, the value of the average residential property increased by 31%, burdening thousands of homeowners with significantly higher property tax bills. Some residents saw their home value increase by 50% or more.

Currently, Philadelphia only allows senior citizens with low incomes to freeze their property taxes. The income requirements are identical to Gauthier’s bill, which is patterned off legislation introduced by former City Councilmember Cherelle Parker on behalf of former Council President Darrell Clarke in 2022. Keeping residents in their homes is part of Mayor Parker’s 100-day Action Plan.

Gauthier will also introduce legislation that seeks to strengthen the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance, which prohibits landlords and property managers from discriminating against people based on what’s known as “source of income,” including anyone who would pay with a housing voucher.

Philadelphia has a history of landlords being hesitant to rent to voucher holders, meaning it often takes months before a voucher holder can find a place to live — if they can find one at all.  A 2018 study from the Urban Institute found that 67% of landlords refused to accept vouchers. That number went up to 83% in “low-poverty” neighborhoods. Last year, one of the city’s largest landlords settled a pair of federal lawsuits against the company after it allegedly barred prospective tenants with housing vouchers from renting apartments in majority-white neighborhoods.

The Fair Practices Ordinance lists “housing assistance programs” as a protected source of income, but does not specifically mention the Housing Choice Voucher Program, a rent subsidy offered through the Philadelphia Housing Authority that provides deep discounts to a limited number of residents with low incomes.

Gauthier’s measure would change that, while outlining in more detail that it is illegal to communicate that vouchers cannot be used to rent or buy a property. The bill would also give residents the right to sue if the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission cannot complete its investigation within 100 days. The commission, tasked with enforcing the ordinance, currently has a year to do that.

“They do a lot of work on behalf of the city and on behalf of people experiencing this, but they often do not get to complete their investigations within a rapid time period, sometimes not even completing them within the year that is spelled out in the law. So we want to shorten the time by which a tenant can take legal action on their own,” said Gauthier.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

HAPCO Philadelphia, the city’s largest advocacy group for landlords, opposes the legislation. President Gregory Wertman said his group is not against vouchers, but he does view the bill as an “unnecessary” layer of oversight that could further burden his members.

“The city has been piling on for a long time,” said Wertman.

A third bill proposes a charter change to ensure that 100% of the “payments in lieu” developers make to the city under its Mixed-Income Housing Bonus program go to its Housing Trust Fund, which “provides funding for new affordable homes and preservation, the repair of existing homes, and homelessness prevention.”

Under the mixed-income program, developers can increase the density of their projects — whether that means more units or floor area — by either building affordable units in their development or paying the city. If they opt to make a payment “in lieu” of creating affordable units, that money is supposed to go towards housing programs funded through the Housing Trust Fund. But nothing is binding about the arrangement, meaning the money could be used elsewhere.

“Since the program began, these payments have never led to a proportionate increase in the housing trust fund. They go to the general fund. This means that neighborhoods that are seeing overscaled development are not receiving the affordable housing benefits that they’re entitled to,” said Gauthier.

The bill would require voters to first approve a ballot question. If passed, density bonus payments would also have to be spent in specific parts of the city, particularly areas seeing increased development. The measure would also lower the income threshold for residents benefitting from Housing Trust Fund dollars.

Mohamed “Mo” Rushdy, president of the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia, which represents developers who work in the city, called the bill “common sense” legislation. He said it’s particularly important that all of the dollars developers contribute to the fund go toward building and preserving housing.

“The ‘in lieu of’ [payments], in my opinion, should go dollar for dollar into the Housing Trust Fund. Not less, not more. That’s the whole idea,” said Rushdy.

A mayoral spokesperson did not respond by deadline to a request for a breakdown of how those payments are allocated within the city’s budget.

Subscribe to PlanPhilly

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