Wissahickon civic group addresses upswing in “boarding house” variance requests

In response to the latest manifestation of pervasive rental housing in their community, members of the Wissahickon Neighbors Civic Association discussed potential impacts related to the rise in zoning variance requests for boarding houses Monday night.

Would they help or hurt the neighborhood?

Following his update on additions to the Northwest Philadelphia Student Task Force Coalition’s website, WNCA President Drew Bantly raised the issue of boarding houses in his district, which straddles Roxborough and Manayunk.

As defined by the Philadelphia Zoning Code Commission (PZCC), a “boarding house” falls under the category of “Group Living,” wherein a building has residential occupancy not utilized in a household capacity – often typified by communal kitchen or dining facilities.

Fraternities, sororities, and group homes all fall under this heading.

Specific to the situation described by Bantly is “single-room residence” group living – defined by the PZCC as a building containing rooms rented as living quarters without private bathrooms.

In order to establish a residence as a boarding house, a zoning variance is required by the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment, according to Bantly.

He was unable to speculate as to reasons for the recent upswing in boarding house variance requests, but noted that boarding houses do not fall under the provision in Philadelphia Code prohibiting more than three unrelated persons living in a single residence.

Bantly emphasized that his rationale for bringing this to WNCA’s attention was to probe his membership for their stance on the issue – that is, whether they see the presence of boarding houses in a favorable light, or as being a possible means for circumventing both extant and proposed rental guidelines.

Furthermore, a policy position by WNCA would inform future zoning decisions.

Relating that there are a “handful” of licensed boarding houses currently in operation, Bantly said that a zoning hearing for a proposed 4-bedroom variance will occur on Feb. 15 at 5 p.m.

Reaction at the meeting was dim to the prospect of additional rentals, but Bantly cautioned against blanket policies, in the event of unique – or otherwise benign – rental situations.

“I’m not one for absolutes,” he said.

Starting a dialogue 

Going forward, Bantly told the WNCA membership that he would like to initiate a dialogue within the group in order to have more concrete plans going forward.

He put forth a plan that could quell problems associated with rentals and promote more civic investment – in the form of a low-finance mortgage program, established in conjunction with the city, for families with intentions for an extended residence, not unlike a co-op.

However, Bantly reiterated that this proposal remains at a germinal stage, and solicited his membership for any suggestions or ideas to secure the well-being of their neighborhood.

“These are types of things we might have to think about,” he concluded, “if we want to ensure that things are maintained.”

Other business 

Echoing a similar vote last week at a Manayunk Neighborhood Council meeting, WNCA also voted to oppose the extension of bar curfews to 3 a.m. as proposed by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown in January.

Lastly, members voiced opposition to a plan set forth by the Philadelphia International Championship cycling event to move its annual race from Sunday, June 3, to Saturday, June 2.

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