Spoiler alert: Philly City Council’s season of housing and development reform, recapped

The fall 2018 council session ended with a landmark victory — Helen Gym’s Fair Work Week bill. But most of the bills they considered don’t receive that kind of attention.

Representatives of the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities packed a Sept. 26 City Council hearing. (Shaylin Sluzalis via Twitter)

Representatives of the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities packed a Sept. 26 City Council hearing. (Shaylin Sluzalis via Twitter)

This story originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

The fall 2018 session of City Council ended with a landmark victory — in the form of Councilwoman Helen Gym’s Fair Work Week bill, which Mayor Jim Kenney will sign Thursday.

But most of the bills City Council considered don’t receive that kind of attention. So, we’ve put together a briefer on the bills that came out of the season and will be shaping housing and development in the year to come.

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The fate of 4601 Market St.

Just after Thanksgiving, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell introduced legislation to get the ball rolling on the redevelopment of the Provident Mutual Life Insurance Company Building at 4601 Market St. The city had sunk $52 million into the stately West Philadelphia structure with the hopes of using it as the new police headquarters. The cops, however, had other ideas, and now the rehabilitated building sits vacant.

The new plan for the site involves a health campus that would offer mental health care services provided by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and daycare run by the YMCA. But something seemed a little off in the Council chambers  . Blackwell’s introduction of the bill included some weird rhetorical jabs, and, at the last session of the year,she put a hold on her own legislation — prompting a furious backlash from Kenney’s office. Mayoral spokesman Mike Dunn said nothing has changed since last week. For now, the bill is in limbo — and so is the future of the large, high-profile redevelopment project.

Good cause eviction

Councilman Curtis Jones surprised everyone in October of 2017 by introducing a “good cause” eviction bill, which would require that landlords have a reason for not renewing a lease or for kicking out a tenant.

The Philadelphia Tenants Union championed the bill as a step forward for renters’ rights, whereas landlords denounced it as an attack upon their business model. Some experts cautioned that the legislation’s actual effects would be limited, however, given that most tenants are evicted for something the bill considers a “good cause” — they are too poor to afford their rent.

In the end, Jones sat on the legislation for almost a year after its hearing, then introduced a measure that significantly narrowed its focus. As passed, the bill will only affect month-to-month leases, which are a small percentage of the market. But the tenants union still hails it as a victory, noting that monthly leases are concentrated in the lower-end of the rental industry and that the bill could deter landlords from using them.

Public land sale reform

In the wake of a Philadelphia Inquirer investigation into a shady land deal, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and Council President Darrell Clarke introduced legislation to tweak the city’s opaque and politically charged land sale process.

The inciting incident implicated Johnson, who provided approval for the city to sell three vacant lots at well under market value to a longtime friend — who promptly flipped them for a tidy profit. Johnson claims he had no idea of the lots value, which prompts critics to ask why Council members are involved in the land sale process at all.

The reform bill Johnson and Clarke introduced would give guidelines to the city’s Vacant Property Review Committee; ban resales within five years; and add a clawback provision to the city’s land deals to ensure purchasers actually follow through on their promises. Many of the provisions of the legislation were enacted by Kenney in new regulations issued last week, although Clarke said his legislation will still be passed in order to codify the mayor’s alterations into law.

Anti-squatting bill reform

Republican Councilman David Oh has been railing against squatters for three Council sessions running. The legislation he introduced in the fall of 2017 was meant to clarify how the police and the courts approach the claims of property owners who find random people living in their buildings. Critics noted that the issue is one that the police department could have dealt with internally and that the issue did not require Council legislation.

Oh’s colleagues found so much that was objectionable in his original legislation that it didn’t even make it out of committee at first — which is extremely unusual in a legislative body that likes to keep conflict and compromise behind closed doors. But Oh’s dogged persistence in pushing the bill eventually got him a win on the issue. Kenney, however, refused to sign the bill, noting in a letter to Council that it would only confuse the issue further.

Instead of vetoing it — the mayor prides himself on never having used that power — he worked with Councilwoman Cherelle Parker to immediately introduce amendments modifying the bill. Oh railed against these changes, launched a social media campaign targeting Parker’s bill, and faced accusations of spreading misinformation. Despite these efforts, the bill passed City Council on a tight vote at the penultimate meeting.

But Oh hasn’t finished. This week, the councilman went on conservative talk radio host Chris Stigall’s show to say he will introduce new amendments to undo Parker’s legislation. He also said that he is also considering suing the city over the issue.


Councilman Curtis Jones introduced legislation to ban medical marijuana dispensaries from many commercial corridors in his district, telling his colleagues “sometimes NIMBY does apply” after three of the shops were permitted to open on City Line Avenue.

The bill would also give Council members and neighborhood groups more notice when property owners sought a medical marijuana license. (Critics denounced the idea as an expansion of councilmanic prerogative.) The Planning Commission did not recommend the bill for approval at its December meeting.

“Our introduction date didn’t meet the cutoff for the last rules hearing of the year,” said Samantha Williams, one of Jones’ top staffers. “We will likely move forward with it in the next session.”

Point Breeze remapping

For the most part, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson takes a piecemeal attitude toward updating the zoning maps in his district. Instead of remapping huge swathes of his district as Councilman Mark Squilla or Council President Clarke have done, he’s mostly gotten involved in a project-by-project basis — until now.

Johnson is one of the only district Council members with a primary challenger, and competitive elections tend to make politicians introduce more big-ticket policies. Perhaps that’s why Johnson introduced an enormous remapping bill that would update the zoning for much of Point Breeze and Grays Ferry.

The bill changes the maps to reflect the single-family row house nature of the existing neighborhoods — and eliminates the zoning that currently allows attached multi-family units — while upzoning Point Breeze Avenue. Johnson hopes that allowing greater density on the beleaguered commercial corridor will bring more life to the street. But he is also cognizant of neighborhood concerns about new construction. The bill limits heights on Point Breeze Avenue to 45 feet and restricts the ability of property owners to build three-story buildings if neighboring structures are only two stories. Johnson also will not be upzoning the industrial corridor of Washington Avenue despite huge pressure to build residential units there.

The bill was held before it received a hearing and will be taken up again by the Rules Committee in the new year.

Litter enforcement corridors

Councilman Bobby Henon introduced legislation creating Litter Enforcement Corridors across the city, which will be marked by signs to inform violators that dumping in these areas will be punished with far larger fines than normal.

Before Henon’s bill was enacted, the city fined illegal dumpers between $50 and $300 on first offense and sentenced them to trash cleanup community service. Those fines double under the new law. Commercial operators used to be hit with fines between $500 and $5,000, but the bill successfully had those fines tripled.

A ban on cashless businesses

A handful of restaurants in Philadelphia have been operating on a cashless basis, and Councilman William Greenlee finds the development unsettling. What about people who don’t have a bank card or teenagers or the homeless?

Greenlee isn’t alone in these objections. Lawmakers in major cities have pursued similar policies for similar reasons. Although the bill did not receive a hearing this session, it will go before the Committee on Law and Government on Feb. 5.

Temple University’s Alpha Center setback

Temple University’s proposal to plunk a stadium in the middle of North Philadelphia engendered enormous backlash in the surrounding neighborhoods and from progressive groups across the city. For months, residents and activists have been denouncing the idea in City Council, making anything Temple-related radioactive.

The university’s proposed Alpha Center — planned to offer day care and early childhood education — became the latest casualty as Council President Clarke pulled the bill he’d introduced to enable the project. He said that the university hadn’t been able to win community support for the project, and, until they did, he wouldn’t be supporting it.

The construction tax dies, but funding won for affordable housing

For 18 months, City Council’s agenda was dominated by low-income and workforce housing. First, Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez proposed mandatory inclusionary zoning, but that idea was defeated by developer groups. Then Council President Clarke allied with her to promote a 1 percent tax on new construction.

But while the construction tax passed at the end of the spring session, Council members agreed to retract it in the face of a likely mayoral veto and the promise of $55 million from the city budget for affordable housing over the next five years. A subsection of the Housing Trust Fund was created as well, allowing the new money to be spent on housing programs that don’t just help the poorest residents, but also can be spent on “middle neighborhoods.”

Voluntary inclusionary zoning

As part of the substitute for the construction tax, the city also estimated that $18 million would be brought in over the next five years from a beefed-up voluntary inclusionary zoning bonus.

The law gives developers additional height, density, and floor area in exchange for payments to the Housing Trust Fund or for building new units on site. (It is anticipated that most will pay into the trust fund to access the bonuses.)

Two kinds of bonuses were created. In neighborhood commercial corridors and multi-family row house areas, developers can get height and density bonuses and would pay $20-to-$24 per additional square foot or $25,000-$30,000 per new unit allowed. In higher density categories often found downtown, developers get greater floor area in exchange for $25-$30 per extra square foot allowed by the bonus.

“Multiple developers have begun the formal process of exploring the bonus with the City,” said Paul Chrystie, a spokesperson for the administration.

The plumbing code (finally) gets updated

Philadelphia is one of the only cities in the country that still requires cast-iron pipes to be used in mid-to-high rise construction instead of cheaper, lighter PVC pipes.

In August 2017, Mayor Kenney constituted the Plumbing Advisory Board to work on a compromise between the plumbers union and the building industry. The board only allowed one of its meetings to be opened to the public, but after about six months of negotiations the two sides signed a memorandum of understanding.

Under the agreement, plastic pipes can now be used in buildings up to 75 feet in height, or five-to-six stories. In high rise residential buildings of up to 150 feet plastic piping can be used within apartments, although iron piping is still required for piping between units.

Jim Maransky of the Building Industry Association said the compromise could save applicable projects 20 percent of their construction costs. The bill allowing the Department of Licenses and Inspections to pass the new code by regulation passed at the end of the session.

Wilson Goode Way

Councilman Curtis Jones introduced a resolution to add a little sign to the block of 59th street that former Mayor Wilson Goode Sr. lives that would christen it Wilson Goode Way. At the ribbon cutting, remnants of the MOVE organization and other left-wing activists showed up in force to protest speeches by Jones, Goode, and Mayor Kenney. Things went about as well as you’d expect.

Municipally backed insurance for community groups

City Councilman Bobby Henon wants the city to pay for Directors and Officers Insurance for registered community organizations, the neighborhood groups that were created during zoning code reform to ensure neighbors have a voice before the zoning board.

Henon’s bill sought to protect these organizations from strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), which battered such groups in Bella Vista and Fishtown. But the Henon’s legislation just authorized the city to provide funds to “help offset the cost” of D&O premiums and includes broad directives to the Planning Commission to institute guidelines for the distribution of funding for insurance.

The Planning Commission panned the bill for being far too vague, but it nonetheless passed out of council. Mayor Kenney did not sign the bill, and because it only “authorizes” the city to provide such funds–and does not mandate it–the administration has no intention of doing so.

Ending the abatement

On the very first day of the fall session of City Council, Councilwoman Cindy Bass introduced a bill that would effectively end the 10-year property tax abatement on new and rehabbed properties in the city.

But nothing more was heard about the bill, co-sponsored by Helen Gym, after that debut. (Gym’s own bill limiting the abatement got put on hold at the end of the spring session.) On Twitter, Bass’s account said that the bill has been referred to the Committee on Finance. “We expect to hold hearings very early in the New Year.”

Daycare ban

At the beginning of the season, Bass also introduced a bill banning d new daycares, vehicle maintenance shops, or tire shops from her district. She said the purpose was to force business owners have a meeting with the local Registered Community Group and get a variance from the zoning board in order to move forward.

The idea prompted backlash and Bass went on to defend it the Philadelphia Inquirer and on Twitter. She tried to compare it to her colleague Cherelle Parker’s legislation, which restrict home-based daycares of with more than six children, prompting Parker to take the unusual step of publicly declaring her colleague’s comparison “inaccurate and misleading.” The Planning Commission also reviewed the bill poorly, with Cheryl Gaston calling it “exclusionary zoning that we cannot support.”

The bill has not yet received a hearing.

Keystone Opportunity Zone reform bill

City Council tried to require the property owners who take advantage of Keystone Opportunity Zone tax breaks–which offer relief from many local and state taxes–be required to hire locally and provide apprenticeships to young Philadelphians.

At the bill’s hearing, the Kenney administration argued that the bill is unlawful.

“The City simply has no authority to require that KOZ-located businesses conduct their affairs in a particular manner in order for them to reap the benefit of a State law entitlement,” read a distributed memo from the Law Department’s Richie Feder.

Nonetheless, council passed it at their last session.

Fire dampers reform: Public safety or make-work?

For eight years, the Sheet Metal Workers Union has been fighting for changes to the fire code that would require annual inspections of fire and smoke dampers in high rise buildings.

The union argues that this is an essential public safety precaution–even evoking memories of 9/11 in their rhetorical arguments for the bill–but industry groups say it is entirely unnecessary, and would merely create more work for union members.

The bill passed out of committee and the union showed up to the last day of City Council to try and get it pushed through. But after an explosive fight with a city official outside the council chambers, the bill got held until next year.

Sprinkler bill

On President’s Day weekend, a fire broke out on the 200 block of Chestnut Street, destroying historic buildings, and apparently inflicting such losses on the Capogiro restaurant chain that the beloved local institution went out of business.

Adding sprinklers throughout a historic building could be extremely expensive, but the Department of Licenses and Inspections said fires in these buildings often start on the ground floor, so the bill would only mandate sprinklers in the basement and on the lower floors.

City Council passed the bill on the last day of the fall session.

$15 living wage

Mayor Jim Kenney’s living wage increase to $15 for companies that contract with the city passed unanimously with no open opposition.

Transit-Oriented Development in Kensington

In 2017, the city created a new transit-oriented development bonus to encourage construction of denser and taller buildings near rapid transit stations. But that wouldn’t happen automatically. Instead, Councilmembers would have to add stations in their districts to the list.

First, Jannie Blackwell added the 46th Street Station. Then in early 2018 Maria Quiñones Sánchez introduced legislation to add four stations in her district, where development is booming, to the list.  These included Erie-Torresdale Station, Allegheny Station, York-Dauphin Station, and Berks Station.

But then she sat on the legislation for the rest of the year, before introducing an amendment that removed York-Dauphin and Berks–where development pressure is hottest–and adding the Spring Garen stop, which is nestled in the midst of a tangle of highways and offers little opportunity for new development.

Quiñones Sánchez did not provide comment on why the changes were made.

Lead safety package

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown introduced a slate of bills meant to address lead safety issues in rental housing. Some passed, such as legislation to demand more transparency from LLCs, but others are still stuck in legislative limbo. Reynolds Brown’s office says she will pursue the rest of the bills in the spring.

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