Philly Council changes mixed-income housing bonus rules for Southwest Center City

The amendment to the zoning code would change the math on residential development in the booming rowhouse neighborhoods southwest of City Hall.

Point Breeze (Neal Santos, © National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Point Breeze (Neal Santos, © National Trust for Historic Preservation)

At the heart of Philadelphia’s latest zoning debate is a question over whether laws should be uniform or if they should reflect the individual needs of each neighborhood. 

Residents, developers, and politicians all seem to fall on different sides of the aisle on the best way to create the affordable housing that most parties agree the city desperately needs.

The latest conflict flared over an amendment to a zoning bill authored by Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson that passed on Thursday. The amendment in question excludes the 19146 zip code from an affordable housing incentive known as the mixed-income housing bonus.

In the rest of the city, developers are allowed to build taller, denser buildings in exchange for including affordable units in the project or paying into the city’s Housing Trust Fund. The amendment exempts developers in the 19146 zip from the option to pay in, mandating they include affordable units on-site if they want the bonus.

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“We just want to make sure that we are providing affordable units,” Johnson said. “I have to remind people when we talk about planning and zoning codes in the city of Philadelphia that we’re a city of neighborhoods. Every neighborhood has their own needs and concerns.”

Bound by Broad Street and the Schuylkill River, Pine to Tasker Streets, 19146, in 2018, ranked as one of the nation’s fastest-gentrifying ZIP codes. Encompassing Southwest Center City, Grays Ferry, and most of Point Breeze, the ZIP code has seen a development boom yet most units have sold for prices far out of reach to the average Philadelphian.

Johnson and other supporters of the amendment said the change aims to interrupt that trend, foster economic integration, and reduce displacement from the district, where Johnson himself grew up.

“We believe this bill bridges the gap between market-rate and affordable housing for all residents,” Albert Littlepage, president of Point Breeze CDC said.

Richard Gliniak, a Graduate Hospital resident and a preservationist, also supports the amendment.

Gliniak has seen developers buying up rowhouses in his neighborhood, tearing them down, and using the mixed-income housing bonus to build luxury condos. Instead of including affordable units in the new buildings, the developers have contributed to the Housing Trust Fund.

“The existing mixed-income housing bonus was intended to increase availability of affordable housing,” he said. “Coupled with other economic forces, it is having the opposite effect.”

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Giliniak said that loophole contributes to the dropping African American population in South Philadelphia.

Still, not everyone is convinced. Critics fear the 19146 carve-out will discourage developers from using the bonus, ultimately reducing the revenue stream going to the city’s housing fund.

According to the latest Housing Trust Fund report, the fund paid for 10,000 home improvements and 4,500 stabilization services such as adding heat and air conditioning.  The 19146 is one of the city ZIP codes that has benefitted the most from the home repairs funded by the trust.

“Removing money from the Housing Trust Fund is concerning,” Camille Boggan, a member of urbanist group 5th Square and a University of Pennsylvania city planning graduate student said. “A lot of homeowners rely on that for home repairs.”

Boggan, who lives in Graduate Hospital, described Johnson’s amendment as a “gross misuse of council prerogative,” referring to the legislative body’s tradition of deferring to district council people on local land use matters. “It’s a way to serve only constituents in his district and not take in the wider needs of Philadelphia.”

Boggan worries that the amendment will usher in a further dissolution of the zoning code, diluting its effectiveness, politicizing development, and making it harder for Philadelphia to achieve affordable housing goals.

“Requiring people to just put one or two affordable housing units isn’t going to bring the broad scale of affordable housing the city actually needs,” she said. “It’s a piecemeal solution that might work for 19146 but isn’t going to work for the rest of the city.”

Vincent Reina, a city and regional planning professor at Penn, said the conflict reflects the city’s ongoing struggle to prioritize housing.

He thinks the city lacks the tools for creating housing and relies too much on developers to create units in exchange for an incentive.

“We’re often trying to say it’s a tool for increasing units, getting deeply affordable units in places where there aren’t, and increasing revenues for the city … and we’re trading off across those three things,” Reina said.

He understands both Johnson’s concerns and planning advocates. He doesn’t necessarily believe either is wrong but it is about priorities.

“We care about housing affordability across the city broadly … but we also care about issues about neighborhood access,” Reina said.

Now that the amendment has passed in City Council, the bill will move to Mayor Jim Kenney to be signed into law.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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