To thrive, Philly needs more housing — not more rules limiting builders

This rendering shows a newly built condo development in the Graduate Hospital section of Philadelphia. (The Stafford Group/  Gnome Architecture)

This rendering shows a newly built condo development in the Graduate Hospital section of Philadelphia. (The Stafford Group/ Gnome Architecture)

During this pandemic, it has become more clear than ever that the ability to stay at home safely can be a literal life-and-death issue. Housing is an issue that has broad consequences for Philadelphia families’ well-being and public health, which requires concerted and clear action from city government.

One important policy for ensuring housing stability is the maintenance of revenue streams that were established to capture the value of new development in desirable neighborhoods, a policy highlighted in the Mayor’s Housing Action Plan. Such development is ultimately governed by regulations in the zoning code that state what can and cannot be built. These provisions, overseen by the Planning Commission, may seem arcane, but ultimately make a difference to the everyday lives of Philadelphians through this system.

Some in City Hall, however, seem to have other priorities than easing the burden of Philadelphians struggling to make rent or keep up their homes.

Two weeks ago, City Councilmembers introduced a series of bills to the Rules Committee that were intended to reform and rewrite sections of the zoning code. Since the 2012 rewrite, the zoning code has been regularly adjusted on a yearly basis, in response to lingering issues and loopholes that result in unnecessary variances and Zoning Board appeals.

Working with the Planning Commission, Councilmembers have recognized this ongoing project and have closely worked in tandem. In particular, Bill 210078, introduced by 7th District Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, was a close collaboration between Council, housing advocates, and the Planning Commission over the past year that successfully addressed multiple zoning issues.

In this round of revisions, however, things didn’t go so smoothly.

The bill was met with indignation at the bill’s hearing before the council’s Rules Committee. Councilmember Cherelle Parker of the 9th District opposed a revision to allow for more accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in single-family rowhouse (RSA-5) zoned lots, as well as one that would slightly decrease the minimum lot size needed for an RSA-5 or small multifamily (RM-1) dwelling unit. She voiced her opposition citing concerns about overcrowding and other quality-of-life issues in her district.

Meanwhile, 2nd District Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson introduced his own amendment that would bar developments in an entire ZIP code (19146) from having to pay into the Housing Trust Fund in lieu of building inclusionary housing units for the Mixed-Income Housing density bonus. The amendment passed last Thursday in a City Council vote.

The ADU and lot size reforms are broadly supported by housing advocates across the spectrum: ADUs are a field-tested method to build intergenerational living for seniors who want to stay with their families, a situation particularly applicable in Parker’s 9th District in Northwest Philly. Indeed, the Mayor’s administration has explicitly endorsed ADUs as a promising strategy to enable older Philadelphians to age in place and supplement their income. Adjusting minimum lot size helps avoid pointless zoning appeals hearings for the city’s odd-shaped parcels, furthering incremental small-scale housing.

The 19146 carve-out would prevent money from going to the Housing Trust Fund, which funds basic systems repair and housing stability for 47,000 low-income homeowners across the city, including dozens of projects in that ZIP code.  In 2019, the trust fund received $8 million from developments using the mixed-income bonus.

Forcing only the option of on-site affordable housing may seem attractive, but in reality, the number of units produced through the on-site option is far less than the number preserved through the far more effective HTF. What the Housing Trust Fund needs is increased resources from City Council to expand the badly needed programs it funds — but instead, Council is seeking to deprive it of a funding source.

Furthermore, the carve-out is far too broad if its intent is to truly protect vulnerable residents from becoming displaced. Councilmember Johnson justifies this amendment by citing that Philadelphia is a “City of Neighborhoods,” but ZIP code 19146 includes both fast-gentrifying areas like Point Breeze and already gentrified areas like Graduate Hospital. Far from being a policy tailored to conditions of individual neighborhoods, it makes denser development less profitable for developers in a few wealthy neighborhoods — reducing the building that will be necessary if we are to prevent even worse displacement in neighboring areas like Point Breeze and Grays Ferry.

These arguments show a major disconnect between what many of our lawmakers prioritize and the actual basic needs of Philadelphians. Our elected officials must recognize that abundant housing is fundamental to a healthy and thriving city, not a nuisance to be mitigated, delayed, or blocked.

The objections are bad on their own, but the way they were resolved into the zoning code bills is also highly problematic: Councilmember Parker got District 9 excluded from ADU and lot size reform in a separate overlay. Bobby Henon’s District 6, Brian O’Neill’s District 10 and Curtis Jones’ District 4 all jumped in with their own specific overlays.

This balkanization marks a disturbing evolution in Councilmanic prerogative. Instead of just using unilateral zoning and development powers on specific projects or neighborhoods, District Councilmembers are now gatekeeping and adjusting the zoning rules themselves as they see fit in their own district. With this precedent broken, Philadelphia does not have a single uniform zoning code anymore, but has up to 10 separate zoning codes, one for each Council district. And make no mistake: the painstaking collaboration and trust between Councilmembers and the Planning Commission in professionally-informed rulemaking has been damaged.

Mayor Kenney must respond decisively to this new frontier in Councilmanic prerogative, and veto bills 210078 and 210075 with the intention of seeing the District-specific and 19146 overlay regulations removed. The stakes are clear: the processes that govern the production of housing, a basic human necessity, will be irreversibly broken if the Mayor does not take action.

The City of Philadelphia is currently gearing up for another round of citywide comprehensive planning, with a robust public process to include the voices of Philadelphians who have been the most marginalized. Mayor Kenney should not let these short-sighted and misplaced amendments not only undermine that process but also harm the basic housing needs of Philadelphians for years to come. The Administration has clearly laid out what must be done to ensure that every family in our city will have safe, affordable, and decent housing: but it must also take action to translate those plans into reality.

Benjamin She and Chi-Hyun Kim are members and volunteers of 5th Square’s housing committee, which is focused on zoning and land use issues affecting housing affordability, stability, and abundance across Philadelphia.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this op-ed incorrectly referred to the amount of money generated in 2019 by the Mixed-Income Housing Bonus.

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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