PlanPhilly

How Philly’s City Council candidates say they’d deal with the housing crisis

Philadelphia voters in Tuesday’s primary election will help determine the future of City Council.

And while many issues are beyond the control of local politicians — who can’t even raise the minimum wage without state permission — councilmembers in Philadelphia do have the power to make and change policies to deal with the city’s housing crisis.

With more than a quarter of Philadelphia’s population living in poverty, there is no escaping the fact that hundreds of thousands of residents are at risk of eviction, displacement, and substandard living conditions. Then there is a different affordability issue, of whether accessibility can last even for middle-income people in the areas of the city that are most walkable and transit accessible.

Advocates and expert observers agree that there is no way for any single municipality to definitively deal with housing affordability on its own, but there are policies that city leaders can adopt to ease the pain.

PlanPhilly spoke to all City Council at-large candidates who raised $50,000 or more about their respective visions for fixing the city’s housing problem. We tried to highlight the responses that were the most detailed about what policies they would pursue if elected.

A handful of candidates did not respond by press time, including Republicans David Oh, Al Taubenberger, and Dan Tinney, as well as Democrats Sandra Dungee Glenn and Katherine Gilmore Richardson.

PlanPhilly also spoke with candidates in the three competitive 2nd, 3rd, and 7th District City Council races. Third District Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and 7th District challenger State Rep. Angel Cruz did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

What City Council has recently accomplished

In the past two years, the debate over housing policy has heated up in Philadelphia, and the city broadened a suite of policies to help homeowners with low incomes deal with rising property taxes.

Philadelphia also created an accessible loan program for home repair, began devoting a small sum to provide tenants with legal aid in eviction court, and adopted a stripped down “just cause” eviction law. Finally, after more than 15 months of debate and negotiation, Mayor Jim Kenney last year committed $71 million to the city’s affordable housing trust fund over the next five years.

Just in recent weeks, new policies were introduced by Councilwoman Helen Gym, who is pushing to give low-income renters a right to counsel in eviction court, and City Council President Darrell Clarke, who wants to change the city’s recently adopted zoning code over fears that it contributes to gentrification. And pretty much everyone wants to find more money for the housing trust fund, reform the 10-year property tax abatement, and do something about the uneven performance of the Office of Property Assessments.

But there are still a variety of policies that other cities have pursued, especially around renter aid and innovative zoning changes, that Philadelphia could consider.

    • Council member at-large Helen Gym. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)
      Council member at-large Helen Gym. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

Renter protections

In 2018, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve praised the city’s efforts to protect low-income homeowners from being displaced by rising property values and spikes in tax assessments. In the years since, the city has rolled out more programs benefiting homeowners and expanded existing protections.

But Philadelphia does not have much policy in place to protect renters from displacement. When asked what council candidates would do to help renters, assuming they won election, a couple answers came up repeatedly.

First, Gym’s effort to guarantee legal representation to low-income renters in eviction court received broad support from those PlanPhilly interviewed.

“Our No. 1 goal for every person is to try to keep people in their homes,” said Councilman at-large Allan Domb. “The Bar Association showed economically why we should invest in counsel for low-income tenants.”

Domb is referring to a study from the Philadelphia Bar Association that found right-to-counsel would cost $3.5 million annually, but would save the city $45.2 million each year in shelter and other costs. (Gym’s proposal used a more expansive definition of low-income, and would cost more than the Bar Association’s estimate.)

“That’s a no-brainer. We should be doing that,” Domb said. “When people don’t have a home, they become unstable. They lose their job. It's a disaster.”

Although the right-to-counsel could pass before any new council members are seated, it will also require Council pressure to ensure that the program receives full funding.

Every candidate who responded to a survey by Reclaim Philadelphia, a progressive political group, indicated they would support the right to counsel. A handful who did not respond to Reclaim’s questions, including Domb and 2nd District candidate Lauren Vidas, also expressed support for the idea. Second District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson co-sponsored the legislation.

Reclaim also found that a smaller majority of candidates supported the idea of rent control, which would either prevent or limit the amount that landlords can raise rents — an idea the current City Council has little appetite for.

It is unclear exactly what a rent-control policy in Philadelphia would mean, however. In New york City, it covers fewer than 30,000 units, but that city also has a far more expansive rent stabilization program, which covers hundreds of thousands of homes and allows for small annual increases.

One of the most prominent proponents of rent control is Erika Almirón, a progressive candidate for an at-large seat on City Council. She said her embrace of the concept stems in part from the experience of an uncle in New York, who moved to Midtown Manhattan in the 1970s and has only been able to stay because of rent control. But she said that she is still studying how to ameliorate the potential downsides of the policy. Rent control is often criticized for not being targeted to people with lower incomes and for dissuading investment in rental properties.

“People who are low-income renters should be prioritized first, along with neighborhoods that are gentrifying rapidly,” Almirón said. “That should address some of those issues.”

Rent control supporters broadly said that they would want to target the policy towards certain neighborhoods or housing markets, as opposed to executing a citywide plan. Democratic Council at-large candidate Beth Finn is in favor of short-term rent control, which basically sounds like a rent freeze for five-to-ten years.

“Long-term rent control takes too many housing units off the market and increases the demand and costs of the limited units available,” Finn wrote in a message to PlanPhilly.

Gym, whose specific policies focus on her own right-to-counsel legislation, said that she would focus a rent-control policy on “responsibly stabilizing rents in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.”

“I’m careful about saying that because we don’t have to do this antiquated version of whatever people think that means from the 1970s,” she said.

Isaiah Thomas, a Democratic candidate for City Council at-large, said in an emailed statement that he supports rent control, but further study is needed to reduce unintended consequences of the policy.

“Other places have used rent control as one way to protect their residents who rent from being priced out of their neighborhood and that looks like something worth exploring in Philadelphia,” Thomas said. “Perhaps, by monitoring sales and rent price hikes and instituting rate increase caps in particular neighborhoods for a range of time to allow people and neighborhoods to adjust to market changes, and perhaps in some places more open-ended rent controls.”

Rent control has more opposition than many of the other housing policies under consideration. Councilman Curtis Jones has always said he does not support the idea, and on the Reclaim survey, both Councilman Derek Green and Democratic candidate Fernando Treviño-Martinez said they opposed the idea. Domb, Vidas, and Democratic at-large candidate Justin DiBerardinis and Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez all expressed skepticism.

Even some of those who said they would support the idea of rent control on the Reclaim survey hedged a bit in practice.

“I’m open to rent control because I think we have to have better ways to protect renters than we currently do,” said Jamie Gauthier, who is challenging longtime West Philly Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. “But I want to learn more about it and how it is working in other places and how it would work in Philadelphia.”

Gauthier is more emphatic about strengthening so-called just cause eviction legislation, which Jones passed in watered-down form at the end of 2018.

The legislation is meant to require that landlords have a reason — such as lack of payment or breaking terms — for evicting tenants or not renewing their lease. Jones’s bill only protected those on month-to-month leases.

Both Gauthier and Vidas spoke in favor of beefing up the new law.

“I think that should be for all renters,” Gauthier said.  “Not just month-to-month leases.”

 
    • Council at-large candidate Isaiah Thomas. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)
      Council at-large candidate Isaiah Thomas. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

The role of density, zoning

Many of the candidates interviewed say they want to alter the city’s zoning code, or make better use of existing rules, if they win or stay in office. Even the Council at-large candidates, who have traditionally wielded little power over land-use decisions because of councilmanic prerogative,  invoke proposals for tweaking the code, which governs development.

Almirón wants the city to allow for accessory dwelling units, which would allow homeowners to rent out a portion of their house or if they have a yard, build a small second unit to lease.

“How do we allow low-income families or senior citizens on fixed incomes to rent a section of their house out to help with income? That kind of zoning change would definitely help a lot of communities,” Almirón said.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration and Councilman Mark Squilla are considering legalizing accessory dwelling units (ADUs) for historic buildings, where homeowners may need additional income to keep up older properties. In the zoning code changes of 2012, language was added to define ADUs, but under pressure from Councilman Brian O’Neill, they are not currently allowed under any of the city’s zoning districts.

Councilman Derek Green brought up ADUs as a potential reform, although he took a more conservative tact saying that it should be studied first.

“In other cities, especially on the West Coast, they’ve looked at how we can use other parts of a property, garages, and in-law apartments, but you have to balance that with concerns neighbors have about renters and density,” Green said.

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez agreed that the issue of accessory dwelling units needs to be revived.

She also said that the city’s regulations around rooming houses should be updated. As PlanPhilly reported, there are currently hundreds of off-the-books rooming houses in the city, but current zoning regulations make them extremely hard to operate legally.

“I have been talking to the [Department of Licenses and Inspections] commissioner about boarding houses and shared living and what that would look like,” Quiñones-Sánchez said. “How could we promote that for the sake of affordability?”

At-large candidate Eryn Santamoor, a former deputy managing director under Mayor Michael Nutter, said she supports a review of the 2012 zoning code and proposed a similar focus on ADUs and other kinds of smaller units.

“Continue to reform our zoning code to promote affordability through density requirements and inclusionary zoning practices (e.g. “tiny” homes, single-room-occupancy units, “in-law flats”, etc.,)” Santamoor wrote in an email message.

Vidas, Gauthier, DiBerardinis, Finn, and Gym all spoke in favor of upzoning around major transit stations and thoroughfares like Broad Street and Washington Avenue in a bid to draw density away from traditional rowhouse neighborhoods.

Gauthier also wants to revisit the inclusionary zoning debate. The former executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy argues that the current bonus, which allows developers to pay into the affordable housing trust fund in exchange for permission to build a taller or denser structure, should be revisited to incentivize affordable units to be built on site. Democratic at-large candidate Beth Finn supports mandatory inclusionary zoning as well, saying that she would like to see a broad-based policy of the type proposed by Quiñones-Sánchez in 2017.  

DiBerardinis also wants to revisit the inclusionary zoning debate, perhaps in conjunction with reform of the 10-year property tax abatement. If that tax incentive is made less generous, then developers could be prompted to build more affordable units in exchange for an abatement of some kind, he said. Beyond inclusionary zoning, he said he does not see the zoning code as a means of addressing the need for affordable housing.

He also said that the question of mandatory inclusionary zoning should be revisited, but in a more narrowly targeted way.

“In the hottest markets, where there are indisputably strong market forces, you could mandate inclusionary zoning,” DiBerardinis said. “But there are some areas of the city that are barely buildable for these types of projects and you can’t layer on as many requirements and still see development occur.”

Some candidates, including incumbent Domb, said they simply didn’t have a strong idea about issues of zoning policy yet. Others, like Thomas, only spoke in broad strokes.

“To be honest, [zoning] is an issue I need to familiarize myself with better,” Treviño-Martinez said. “I have to admit that’s not an expertise of mine, but I do agree that we need to do everything we can to ensure we are providing more affordable housing, whether through zoning or renters’ rights.”

    • City Council candidate Erika Almirón. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)
      City Council candidate Erika Almirón. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

Community land trusts

A handful of candidates championed the idea of community land trusts, non-profit organizations that take ownership of land for affordable housing and other neighborhood-oriented uses as a way to fight displacement and preserve an area as accessible, even if market prices surge.

Almirón and Vidas said the city could learn from Boston, which has used them as a neighborhood stabilization tool since the 1980s, while Philadelphia only has a few to date.

Vidas said community land trusts would be a particular focus if she won Tuesday’s election.

“With community land trusts it remains affordable as long as it lasts, which is something we need to be striving for,” Vidas said. “Some cities have used it to prioritize moving residents who have been displaced by gentrification back into the neighborhood. It gives them an opportunity to move back into an affordable living situation and actually own their home.”

It’s a tool that the incumbent she is challenging, Kenyatta Johnson, said he has already encouraged in the 2nd District. Johnson highlighted the fact that the Women’s Community Revitalization Center is opening one of the city’s only community land trusts in a gentrifying section of the district.

He also said that he is working with the Philadelphia Land Bank to ensure there is affordability in his district. This spring, his office worked with the land bank on a request for proposals for a batch of city-owned lots in Grays Ferry, with a requirement that they be a mix of affordable and market rate.

“The income from the market-rate housing, along with the nominal price of the lots, will provide a sizable, built-in subsidy for the affordable units,” Johnson said in an email. “Additional RFPs for affordable housing in South Philadelphia are in development and will be issued by the Land Bank and the Redevelopment Authority this summer.”

About the author

Jake Blumgart, Reporter

Jake Blumgart is PlanPhilly's planning, development, and housing reporter. He covers the city's built environment and the people who live and work there. He lives in Cedar Park and has also contributed to Slate, CityLab, Next City, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Magazine, and the American Planning Association's magazine. Follow him on Twitter @jblumgart and email him at jblumgart@whyy.org.

 


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