With two months to go until the Democratic primary election in Philadelphia, City Council members are betting that affordable housing and tenants’ rights will be motivating issues for voters.
The council released a report in early March, “Narrowing the Gap: Strategies to Alleviate and Prevent Poverty in Philadelphia.” It includes more than two dozen ideas on housing, jobs and education, and the social safety net. In a press release, Council President Darrell Clarke said the report includes “much of what we already know about generational poverty, and its perniciousness, and offers multiple blueprints for legislative and policy remedies.” Council members then introduced five bills mandating new affordable housing requirements for developments that use public land, preventing landlords from discriminating against tenants with criminal histories, and creating a legal defense fund for low-income tenants.
Andrea Batista Schlesinger, a partner at HR&A Advisors, the real estate and economic development consulting firm that council commissioned to do the report, says they examined other cities for policies that could help create economic opportunities and eliminate barriers for residents with the deepest challenges. They also spoke with housing advocates in Philadelphia and met with council members several times, Schlesinger says.
“They very much wanted actionable items, and our work is to bridge between ideas and implementation. They picked us for that reason,” she says.
There’s evidence to suggest that housing is a winning election-season issue. Since 2015, the last time Philadelphians elected a new mayor and City Council, cities around the United States have begun trying to address their housing crises with a variety of housing policies meant to make more homes accessible to more people. Minneapolis famously adopted a plan that calls for an end to single-family zoning in the city, after advocates pushed housing to the top of the electoral agenda in 2017. Austin voters approved the largest housing bond in the city’s history. A new cohort of cities and states has begun to look at implementing rent control, a policy that was widely considered passe just a few years ago. In Philadelphia, around 125,000 households spend more than half of their income on rent, and the first bills introduced alongside “Narrowing the Gap” were related to housing.
One bill, for example, would require that any public land that is sold for multifamily development set aside at least a third of the units for low-income tenants. The units would have to be leased at rates that people earning up to half the area median income can afford, maxing out at around $765 a month for an individual or $1,100 a month for a family of four.
The bill represents a new phase in conversations about inclusionary housing that have been going on in Philadelphia for years. Two summers ago, City Council Member Maria Quiñones-Sánchez floated a proposal that would have created the city’s first mandatory inclusionary zoning policy. That proposal was later altered, and last year, the council approved a voluntary version of the policy with density incentives for developers who build affordable units. The new bill essentially creates mandatory inclusionary zoning for projects on public land. Housing advocates in Philadelphia say they weren’t closely involved in crafting the new proposal, but they welcome the effort and tentatively support the goals.
“I do think that there is tremendous value in ensuring that public land is serving equitable development goals, and requiring some affordability for certain parcels is a really important step,” says Beth McConnell, policy director for the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations.
McConnell notes that many of the public properties sold to developers in Philadelphia are used for single-family housing, so it’s not clear how frequently the new policy would be triggered, if it ends up passing. But in the cases where it did come into play, such as a large-scale redevelopment proposal on a public lot in a gentrifying part of South Philadelphia, it could make a big difference, McConnell says. To make the bill as effective as it can be, it might make sense to pair it with an incentive, McConnell adds.
“I think it’s a worthwhile conversation about whether you would offer to discount the land in exchange for this requirement, or to compensate or offset for this requirement,” she says.
Another bill, which would create a Low-Income Tenant Legal Defense Fund, also carries on a policy conversation about tenant legal protections that has been active for years. In 2017, City Council Member Helen Gym’s office helped secure $500,000 to pilot a program, called the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project (PEPP), that helps tenants get access to legal aid in landlord-tenant court. In its first year, according to an annual report, PEPP provided more than 1,100 tenants with expert legal advice, distributed 8,000 tenant resource guides and assisted more than 2,500 tenants via a tenant help line. The city increased the allocation to $850,000 last summer.
Gym co-sponsored a bill in March that would appear to make the Low-Income Tenant Legal Defense Fund more permanent. The bill “brings our city another step closer to guaranteeing the right to counsel and expands on the city’s anti-eviction work, which has been a central priority of my office,” Gym said in a statement.
A recent report commissioned by a Philadelphia Bar Association task force suggests that if Philadelphia invested $3.5 million a year in legal aid for tenants facing eviction, it could save $45.2 million in costs related to homelessness, court costs, and neighborhood and family instability.
Another bill, similar to efforts in Washington, D.C., Seattle and Detroit, would prevent landlords from inquiring about a prospective tenant’s criminal background except “for the purposes of screening an applicant for sexual assault.” Two others would establish an affordable housing tax credit and require rental listing services to include city rental license numbers in their advertisements. (The Philadelphia Inquirer reported last year that nearly 40,000 rental properties are unlicensed, which creates code enforcement challenges.)
Other strategies in “Narrowing the Gap” could provide ready material for more legislation down the line. The first agenda item is creating a “linkage fee,” which would capture money from new development and allocate it to affordable housing programs. In effect, a linkage fee would be similar to another measure that the City Council has already debated. In 2018, the council narrowly approved a bill imposing a 1 percent tax on new construction and sending the proceeds to the city’s Housing Trust Fund, which helps pay for new construction and preservation of affordable housing and funds home repairs. Mayor Jim Kenney held off on signing the bill over concerns about its impact on development, before negotiating a compromise deal to let the tax proposal die in exchange for a commitment to put at least $53 million into the fund over five years with tax revenue from properties coming off the city’s controversial 10-year tax abatement.
Last month, the city announced that it had made good on that commitment with a $19 million deposit into the fund.
This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.